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Living in the shadows: who is the guardian of urban refugee rights?


This World Refugee Day the global commitment to addressing the rights of urban refugees is in serious doubt.

Following a spate of grenade attacks late last year in Nairobi, and Somali militant attacks in the north of the country, the Kenyan Government retaliated with attempts to enforce the encampment of urban refugees. Collectively branded as a threat to national security, the 55,000 refugees living in Nairobi have had their lives and livelihoods made illegal.

Refugees were given the directive from the Kenyan Government to leave their homes and move to the Dadaab and Kakuma camps in Northern Kenya, camps already badly under resourced and rife with violence, theft and forced recruitment of young men. The directive unleashed a period of heightened abuses against refugees by Kenyan security forces in Nairobi, including beatings, theft, rape and torture.

A leaked letter in January revealed the Kenya Government planned to round up those who did not leave Nairobi, place them in a sports stadium and forcibly truck them to camps. A court injunction by two NGOs claiming this directive was unconstitutional temporarily halted further implementation. The Kenyan High Court will rule on the matter on June 30th.

If the directive comes into force, it will be illegal for a refugee to reside in a city or for an agency to provide assistance to them in a city. This is despite the fact Nairobi had significant progress with its own urban refugee programme. Refugees themselves show no willingness to agree with these plans. Tens of thousands have gone into hiding, or fled to other urban areas to avoid being detained.

As the security situation in Somalia has improved in the last year, Kenyan authorities hold the belief that relocation to camps could be closely followed by repatriation. NGOs and human rights bodies argue forced relocation to camps is a contravention of international and national law, and there are serious doubts about Somalia’s ability to provide a safe return for its refugees. Many claim a mass return could be destabilising to the country.

Alarmingly, action from the United Nations and other global players has been decidedly muted. The UN Secretary General, Ban-ki Moon, has pledged UN support for repatriation, seemingly on the grounds that conditions in the camps are inadequate to sustain the population.

While the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has said it will not support forcible relocation to the camps and has urged the government to abandon the directive, it has committed assistance to refugees who wish to voluntarily return to camps. UNHCR has joined a government-run taskforce to oversee the implementation of the directive to ensure it is done humanely.

UNHCR did not speak publicly against the directive when it was first announced and its recognition of the abuses committed against refugees by Kenyan security forces earlier this year was belated. This begs the question, where will strong leadership on urban refugee protection come from? We are witnessing a failure to defend the gains that refugees have made in achieving self-sufficiency and access to services in cities.

UNHCR’s own commitment to its landmark 2009 urban refugee policy should be called into question. This policy was seen as a turning point in the recognition that the majority of refugees are in urban areas. The policy states ‘cities are recognised as legitimate places for refugees to reside and exercise the rights to which they are entitled’. These rights include those set out in the 1951 Convention, to which Kenya is a party.

In almost all cases, refugees lack political rights and as such are inherently disposed to marginalisation, this heightens the need for international support for their protection and interests. The international community should reject the assertion that security will be achieved, or repatriation encouraged, by denying urban residence to refugees. The defence of refugees’ rights to be in cities – to establish lives, access services, and develop economic self-sufficiency outside the structures aid-funded camps – should be emphatic and unambiguous.