Think Africa Press
BY LAETITIA BADER
Tuesday, April 03, 2012
Despite the economic costs, Kenya must continue to assist and protect Somali refugees rather than tell them to return to so-called 'safe zones'.
Over recent months, prominent Kenyan officials have called for Somali refugees to go back to Somalia, claiming it is safe for them to return. The reality is starkly different: there is ongoing fighting in the border regions that Kenya claims to have liberated, and the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab maintains a significant presence.
Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Wetangula and Internal Security Minister Saitoti said again that the Kenyan military has established a zone inside Somalia safe for returning refugees, reiterating what President Mwai Kibaki told the London conference on Somalia on February 23.
Saitoti did at least say that no returns would be forced: the forced return of refugees to a country where they face persecution or torture, or to situations of generalised violence – such as Somalia – would be a serious violation of African regional and international law. But the contention that the “buffer zone” is safe does not stand up to scrutiny.
Credible sources report that the conflict with al-Shabaab continues in a number of areas held by the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) and militias allied to the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG). And in Somalia, as Human Rights Watch has documented over the past years, fighting almost inevitably means that civilians are paying a heavy price.
The ongoing conflict in Lower Juba – at the heart of the Kenyan-controlled zone – is particularly intense, with the lines of control shifting rapidly, sometimes overnight, making civilians particularly vulnerable to reprisals.
In the past week alone, two residents of Bills Qooqaani, 90 kilometres from the border town of Dhobley, told Human Rights Watch that al-Shabaab fighters had attacked the town on March 17. That same day, a refugee who arrived in Kenya from the village of Taabta, 60 kilometres from Dhobley, said that night attacks by al-Shabaab against the nearby Kenyan military base and retaliation with heavy weapons by the Kenyans had forced her to flee.
“Even during the civil war we had never experienced such fear because no militia had a base here,” she said.
On March 20, the village of Diif in Somalia, five kilometres from the Kenyan border, was briefly retaken by al-Shabaab fighters. A local source told Human Rights Watch that on March 13, three boys were beheaded on the road between Diif and Dhobley, reportedly by al-Shabaab fighters. These and other attacks are prompting people to flee, not return to, these so-called safe zones.
Humanitarian agencies are barely present in Dhobley and the fact that there is little or no access to humanitarian assistance in these buffer zones raises further questions about their security and viability for civilians.
The outlook from Gedo, on the northern edge of the buffer zone, where Kenyan forces are reported to be making inroads, is not much brighter, with reports of al-Shabaab ambushing a KDF convoy, and continuing fighting. That journey remains perilous: on March 8, local contacts said a car filled with people fleeing Mogadishu hit a landmine between Belet Hawa and El Waq, within the area the Kenyans claim to control.
On March 12, a Kenyan and TFG convoy was ambushed by al-Shabaab fighters outside the village of Taraak. The fighting that followed resulted in the reported death of at least 10 people.
The UN says that the displacement of civilians from Lower Juba and Gedo to Mogadishu has increased in recent weeks, including from towns purportedly under KDF and TFG control, such as Bills Qooqaani. An estimated 5,000 people have fled Gedo alone due to fighting. And KDF and TFG military forces have occupied schools, making it impossible for schooling to continue.
While the UN has reported a small but unconfirmed number of refugees leaving Kenya and returning to Somalia lately – primarily farmers returning to cultivate after the rainy season and others citing insecurity in Dadaab – most refugees continue to flee the misnamed safe zones for the relative safety of Kenya.
There is no question that Kenya bears a heavy burden helping Somali refugees receive assistance and protection in Kenya. But Kenya cannot wipe its hands of legal – and moral – obligations to assist and protect refugees simply by claiming that Somalia is now safe, when the facts show the opposite.
If the Kenyan government believes that the current refugee situation poses security risks or is no longer sustainable economically and environmentally, instead of trying to send people back, here are four steps Kenya might take.
First, resume registering new arrivals in Dadaab. The registration process has been suspended since October 2011, leading to a situation in which refugees are living informally on the outskirts of camps, unscreened.
Second, re-open the refugee screening centre at Liboi. This would help ensure that refugees can be screened for security risks and registered before being taken to Dadaab.
Third, publish an estimate of the costs that Kenya incurs by hosting refugees at Dadaab and be clear about what further support is needed. Government officials regularly claim that Dadaab has become “too costly”, but they do not provide details.
Fourth, improve security for the refugees and the local community in Dadaab. This will mean working to restore trust between the police and refugees. Developing community policing may be one way to build confidence; investigating and prosecuting officers responsible for the December 2011 police raid in which over 100 refugees were beaten is another.
Telling refugees to “go back to Somalia,” as two refugee women told us police did while beating them, will not solve the problem.
Governments concerned about the situation in the region have been curiously silent about recent police abuses against refugees in Dadaab and about the Kenyan government’s alarming statements about potential returns to Somalia. They too have a role to play by providing adequate support so that Kenya can cope with its refugee population while not forgetting to remind Kenya of its obligations.