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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

How can we keep asylum seekers safe from transnational repression?

This month marks the first anniversary of Morris Mabior’s arrest and disappearance in Nairobi. His case and several others suggest that Kenya is increasingly becoming a risky location for asylum seekers wanted by neighbouring governments. What could the Kenya Government learn from other governments currently addressing transnational repression?


On 4 February 2023, outspoken South Sudanese anti-corruption critic Morris Mabior was forcibly abducted and unlawfully handed over to the National Security Service according to the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan. The Pan African Lawyers Union have filed a complaint against Kenyan and South Sudanese governments for cooperating in his abduction and rendition to that infamous Blue House detention centre. The habeas corpus case comes up for hearing in the East African Court of Justice on 12 March. To date, he has not been brought before a court in Juba.


On 23 October 2022, renowned Pakistani anti-corruption investigative journalist Arshad Sharif was shot several times by Kenyan police officers. Despite repeated calls for justice by his wives, the United Nations, Reporters without Borders and other human rights organisations, the world is no closer as to who may have masterminded his murder and how the Pakistani security services may have been involved. The investigation file remains with stuck in the IPOA. His family has sued the Government in a Kenyan court.


On 19 November 2021, Ethiopian businessman Samson Teckle-Michael was filmed being abducted on a Nairobi street in broad daylight as a traffic police officer and the public watched. For two years now, his wife, young children, friends, and human rights organisations have publicly demanded his release or prosecution in a court of law. Despite this, no investigation has been pursued and his whereabouts remain unknown.


The three cases illustrate a deteriorating situation for those who seek sanctuary in Kenya. Covert collaboration between Kenyan police officers and foreign government counterparts, profiling of “dissidents”, threats to their families as well as the difficulties of registering as asylum-seekers and the lack of protection are the fears of many in exile today.


According to Freedom House, thirty-eight authoritarian states have used transnational repressive methods in ninety-one host countries in the last decade. China is responsible for a quarter of these cases. Detention, unlawful deportation, violent attacks, and assassinations in this order are the most prevalent. Probably the most infamous international incident was the brazen 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in that Saudi Embassy in Istanbul. More recently, Canada-India diplomatic relations soured last year following Canada’s accusations that India was complicit in murdering Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar.


Facing these threats, some governments are taking steps to criminalise what is increasingly now being called transnational repression. Introduced in May 2023, the US Congress is currently debating the Transnational Repression Policy Bill (H.R.3654). The bill seeks to stop governments from intimidating, silencing or harming diasporan and exiled persons or communities. Once enacted, it will require the US Government to build international awareness around transnational repression, monitor and “raise the cost” for those perpetrating these crimes as well as reach out to those at risk. Some of these consequences include US visa bans and imposing sanctions on the property of those that directly engage in transnational repression.


After revelations that China has been running “police stations” and Russia has sponsored several fatal chemical attacks on Russian exiles on British soil, the UK government has also established a Defending Democracy Taskforce to safeguard against foreign interference and protect diaspora communities.


Backed by the tremendous capacities of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the US legislative bill could be groundbreaking. It comes at a time when authoritarian governments are increasingly using physical and virtual methods to stalk, intimidate, or assault people and interfere with domestic political processes and elections.


Like the US and UK, the Kenyan government has a human rights obligation to protect asylum seekers from governments seeking to export repression to our borders. Perhaps the executive and parliament could take a moment to study these initiatives, adapt and introduce our own version in line with international and national law.


This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard,  2 March 2024.

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