• Irũngũ Houghton

Refugees deserve human rights and this is how we can strengthen them

First published Saturday Standard, June 30, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

Last week’s World Refugee day offered an opportunity to remind ourselves that 85% of the world’s 68 million people fleeing violence and indignity in the world are in Kenya and other developing countries. 31 people were forcibly displaced every day of last year. By December, there were three million new refugees in the world. For Foni and others, every day is refugee day. I spent this week in Dadaab, Garissa county listening to their experiences and what more can be done.

Kenya hosts upwards of 468,900 refugees from more than twenty countries across the world. The majority live, school, work and do business in Dadaab, Kakuma, Nairobi, Eldoret and other towns. Dadaab camp is still the largest in Kenya with about 208,000 refugees, majority of whom are Somalis.

Rising violence, punishing droughts and the absence of any basic services since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1992 has led to streams of households coming over the border. Twenty-six years on, Dadaab is now a medium size town with at least two generations of people who know no other home.

These communities have been crowded out by the heart wrenching international media stories of migrants crossing borders to seek asylum in North America and Europe. UN agencies have decried the 30% drop in humanitarian funding for Dadaab. Caught between funding dips and rising violent extremist attacks, the Government of Kenya attempted to close the camp in 2016. They were only stopped by a court after the Kenya National Human Rights Commission and Kituo cha Sheria cited Kenya’s obligations under international human rights law and our constitution. Forcing refugees to return to their countries and possible death is against Kenya’s international obligations.

Government policy has since evolved but more is still needed. While there is no current threat of an abrupt closure and the forceful repatriation, the Government has frozen registration of new arrivals in Dadaab. The status of over 9,000 new arrivals is currently undetermined. Without registration, they cannot access shelter, food rations, and health-care or school facilities. Last year, over 3,000 children from over 30 primary schools in Dadaab sat national primary examinations. This year, thousands of students may not be able to sit for national examinations for lack of documentation.

Perhaps the Garissa County Government and the Interior Ministry could borrow a good idea from Turkana County Governor Josphat Nanok. Facing similar challenges, Nanok recently announced that refugees in Kakuma should move freely within the county. Free movement opens up educational, health and livelihoods opportunities. Curiosity to pursue Kenyan history is another. I was touched by primary school student Ali who told me his only wish was to visit and learn more about Fort Jesus and Vasco da Gama.

The number of refugees returning to Somalia have dwindled. Violence and a lack of economic opportunities and social services have made the country unattractive for those making rational choices. Many of the 9,000 new arrivals in Dadaab include those who were previously repatriated back to Somalia. For this reason, it is unrealistic to think the need for protection in our Daadab camps is over.

The Interior Ministry must consider reopening registration in Dadaab. Modern refugee management thinking favors a local integration approach to an encampment approach. It is less costly, boosts local economies and reduce tensions with the host community. Kakuma and Turkana county offers us a way forward. Our national parliament must also urgently restart the process of developing a new refugee management law that provide for solutions like integration.

Despite the building of a new court house and an agreement by the Judiciary to post magistrates in Dadaab, the court seems to have stalled. Currently, cases are heard over 100 kilometers away in Garissa. The distance is prohibitive for complainants and witnesses. Justice is often left to the arbitration of cultural maslaha hearings led by elders and religious leaders. While rooted in the culture and religious beliefs of the Somalis, I listened to numerous complaints that these hearings excluded women arbitrators and were largely ineffective to deter sexual assault and rape. Opening the court in Dadaab is a precondition for addressing these and other human rights violations.

According to a recent International Rescue Committee and Twaweza study, 90% of Kenyans believe that Kenya must continue to host those fleeing violence and humanitarian disasters in our neighborhood. Resuming registration, lifting movement restrictions, allowing social economic integration and strengthening judicial services is critical to improving the quality of care and protection we provide in the immediate future.


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