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Refugees in Kenya left in legal limbo

The children at the Sheorapara learning centre receive close attention from their teach Helena / G. M. B. Akash - Panos London

A new report has found that refugees living in Nairobi lack clear legal status, leaving them vulnerable to extortion and abuse by police. The study, published by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) found that the Kenyan government has not clearly defined the rights of refugees in Nairobi, meaning neither the police nor refugees know where they stand within the law.

“At the moment it is not clear whether refugees are allowed to stay in the city [Nairobi], what documentation they need and what rights they are entitled to,” says Samir Elhawary, a research fellow at the ODI in London.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 40,000 refugees currently live in Nairobi but the researchers believe the true figure could be double.

Many of the refugees, largely from Somalia and Ethiopia, came to Nairobi from refugee camps such as Dadaab and Kakuma in northern Kenya, saying they had not felt safe in the camps. They also told researchers there was a shortage of education and health services and little employment.

Bribes and lack of police training

Although many of the refugees interviewed said they felt safer in Nairobi than in the camps, they reported ‘widespread patterns of abuse and extortion’ by Kenyan police. The study reported that frequent arrests were made with a view to extorting money from the refugees. Interviewees said extortion in Eastleigh, a Nairobi suburb, was so lucrative, “that officers not based in the district often come to ‘work’ there specifically to extort money from refugees”.

The researchers found that due to the high staff turnover and a lack of training in the police force many officers did not which documents refugees should be carrying. One police commander told researchers that ‘there have been incidences when refugees have been arrested and taken to court, only to find that they were in fact in Kenya legally and had a valid document’.

“The government should carry out efforts to train police forces and government departments on refugee rights and refugee documentation,” says Samir Elhawary.

However, the refugees have developed ways to cope with abuse from police. Somali and Oromo refugees from Ethiopia told researchers that if a refugee is stopped in the street, community members immediately collect bribe money to prevent that person being arrested. The majority of the respondents said everyone contributed generously. One male Somali refugee told researchers: “Today it happened to him, tomorrow it can happen to me.”

Refugees cope by sticking together

In the eastern suburb of Eastleigh, Somali refugees have transformed the residential area into a vibrant commercial and business centre over the last two decades.

Around 43 per cent of urban refugees in Kenya are self-employed. As refugees have to pay US $700 to obtain a two-year work permit, many refugees work within the informal economy and use social and family networks to find work.

“In the absence of large scale support from national authorities and international agencies, many refugees have developed strong coping mechanisms to support their livelihoods,” Elhawary told Panos.

The report recommends fast-tracking legislation that clarifies the legal status of refugees in the city. It also calls on the international community and civil society organisations to provide funding to help refugees become more self-reliant.

The researchers held focus group discussions between September and November last year with 398 refugees living in Nairobi or in the northern camps. A further 36 interviews were carried out with Kenyan police, civil society organisations, UN agencies, legal advisers and government officials.

Further reading

Title: Hidden and Exposed: Urban refugees in Nairobi, Kenya

Authors: Sara Pavanello, Samir Elhawary and Sara Pantuliano


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