Somali refugees in Kenya are ordered to report to the Dadaab refugee camp, which already holds more than 450,000 people. (Mohamed Abdi)
Somali refugees in Kenya are ordered to report to the Dadaab refugee camp, which already holds more than 450,000 people. (Mohamed Abdi)

Somalis in Kenya hounded by security forces, refugee policy

Exiled Somali journalists living in Nairobi were struck with disbelief this week when daily newspapers published a statement by the Department of Refugee Affairs ordering all Somali refugees to move to refugee camps. “The refugees, particularly those living in urban centers, are contributing to insecurity in the country,” the statement read. The acting commissioner for refugee affairs, Badu Katelo, said aid agencies including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) must stop providing aid to those outside the camps. 

The order followed a series of grenade attacks in Kenya’s northeastern regions, such as Garissa, and in Eastleigh, the predominantly ethnic Somali district of Nairobi, where many exiled journalists live. The attacks are suspected of being carried out by the Islamic militant sect Al-Shabaab, although the group has not claimed responsibility, news reports say. The violence has prompted Kenyan security forces to target hundreds of refugees residing in Eastleigh on suspicion of links to Al-Shabaab–a cruel irony for local exiled journalists, given that most of them fled to safety in Kenya precisely because of threats to their safety from Al-Shabaab back home.

Many exiled Somali journalists in Eastleigh and elsewhere can attest to the heavy hand of Kenyan security forces. Muhyadin Ahmed Roble was on his way home one evening last week in the Kairokoo area of Nairobi when members of Kenya’s paramilitary, the General Service Unit (GSU), were conducting operations in the area. They were investigating a December 8 grenade attack in nearby Eastleigh, which injured a member of parliament, according to news reports. Soldiers stopped Muhyadin outside his home and asked for his identity card. “I showed them my passport and press card but instead of releasing me they accused me of taking photographs while I had no camera on me at the time,” he said. The forces pushed Muhyadin to the ground, beat him with the butts of their guns, and even walked on him. “They surrounded, stepped on, kicked, and pushed him as he kept crying out, ‘why?’ said Moses Baraza, a night security guard who witnessed the beating. “As they did this, they continued asking where the people he interviewed were, and who had told him to take photographs,” Baraza said. They released Muhyadin after taking his wallet.

Deputy Police Spokesman Charles Owino told CPJ he would look into the matter, but repeated follow-up calls and text messages went unanswered.

Muhyadin is one of the few exiled Somali journalists who have managed to continue in the profession while living in exile. He contributes to several websites, writes political analysis for the U.S.-based security think-tank Jamestown Foundation–and all the while studies journalism at the United States International University. He thought that his professional status would protect him from being profiled in the fight against Al-Shabaab. Instead, it caused more misery. “Before that night, I thought that if I had a press card, I was safe. Now I don’t believe so,” he said.

“You cannot go out at night and must hide indoors as much as possible,” said another local journalist, who resides in Eastleigh and who requested anonymity because of fear of reprisal. “It is very understandable that Kenya needs to ensure security, but I fear the measures used by the government and security personnel will only create further tensions and violence.”

In another incident, the GSU took Somali journalist Ubah Abdi Warsame and her mentally ill brother from their Eastleigh home on December 8, on suspicion of affiliation with Al-Shabaab, she told me. It took a great deal of negotiation by her colleagues to convince the GSU to release her, local journalist Mohamed Garane said. “Somali journalists are facing the toughest time ever. These journalists have fled from their home country seeking refuge and protection [but] they are still facing insecurity in Kenya,” Garane said. “Some of them are threatened by elements claiming to belong to Al-Shabaab on a daily basis while others are beaten, extorted, or detained illegally by the police.”

The situation for exiled Somali journalists in other parts of the country is no better. Last month, Kenyan soldiers harassed civilians and burned sections of a market in Garissa after three soldiers were shot dead, according to local journalists and news reports. Soldiers held a reporter for Radio Citizen, Petronilla Wangui, with the string of her press card around her neck, claiming they would kill her, she told me. “They accused us of showing the nation that the army was doing bad things. It was not bad for me, but other journalists were beaten with sticks.” The Kenyan army spokesman, Col. Cyrus Oguna, denied that forces harassed local civilians, claiming they only responded to violence instigated by locals, according to local reports.

Many exiled Somali journalists in Kenya tell me they appreciate the fact that the country is facing unprecedented security threats and that strong measures are required. But few say they believe that forced relocations to camps will ensure greater security or is even logistically feasible. The Department of Refugee Affairs ordered Somalis to report to the Dadaab refugee camps– a complex originally designed to hold 90,000 refugees that now holds more than 450,000. There are over 33,000 Somali refugees residing in Nairobi, according to the UNHCR. As the overcrowding continues, insecurity and violence within the camp also continues, according to local journalists and reports.

According to local reports, the UNHCR said the government had made a hasty decision without considering the rights of the refugees. Not all members of the Kenyan government support the move either. Retired Maj.-Gen. Aden Sugow, a legislator, labeled the order “reactionary,” according to The Associated Press. “This means that the government is saying refugees should be put into concentration camps. The government should pave way for a proper camp set-up to allow for ease of patrol by security personnel. We can’t bury our own tails,” Sugow told the AP.

Worst of all, exiled Somali journalists fear that relocation to the camps could be a death sentence. “Movement to the camps would be disastrous since journalists are often targeted by Al-Shabaab and many consider Dadaab infiltrated by them–the very group Somali journalists fled from in the first place,” Garane said.

“The Al-Shabaab want publicity, they want to show that there is insecurity in Kenya. So they have resorted to this type of individual targeting where journalists are no exception,” one local journalist who requested anonymity told me. The abrupt move to relocate Somali refugees will only instigate more tension, this journalist said. “I fear I am foreseeing the beginning of Somaliphobia.”

[Reporting from Nairobi, with additional reporting from Carlos Mureithi, a Nairobi-based journalist whose writing regularly appears in The Nation and the online news portal Africa Review]