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Somalia: Refugees and Camps

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Jul 24, 2011 (110724)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

The new drought crisis, and increased flow of refugees to Kenya and Ethiopia, comes on top of years of overcrowding and incapacity to deal with the refugee flow from Somalia. The greatest responsibility has fallen on Kenya, where the vast majority of refugees are housed in the huge camp at Dadaab. The failure of the international community includes not only the lack of early response to the latest drought, but the inability to find a sustainable solution other than warehousing refugees in camps.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from one document dealing particularly with the situation of Somali Refugees in Kenya. The excerpts from this December 2010 report by Amnestry International focus particularly on the situation of refugees in the Dadaab camp. A similar report, documenting the same issues, was released by Human Rights Watch in March 2009 ( / direct URL:

While these reports focus on the responsibilities of Kenya, it is important to note that the responsibility for refugees belongs not only to the country of immediate arrival, but to other countries in the international community. "Warehousing refugees" as has been done in the case of Somalis in Kenya is not a sustainable solution and is a violation of the fundamental rights of refugees (see / The international community, not only the country of first asylum, has the responsibility for finding sustainable solutions, through resettlement and employment in other countries if return to the home country is not a possible option.

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin sent out by e-mail today, available on the web at, contains several more recent documents on the current crisis.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Somalia, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

From Life without Peace to Peace without Life

The Treatment of Somali Refugees and Asylum-seekers in Kenya

Amnesty International

December 8, 2010

[Excerpts: For full report, see]


This document focuses on certain aspects of the treatment of Somali nationals who have found refuge in Kenya. Whilst Amnesty International recognises that there are many human rights issues of concern affecting Somali refugees and asylum-seekers in Kenya, this document describes only some of these human rights issues, and in particular:


  • the situation in the three Dadaab camps in North-Eastern Kenya, which host mainly Somali refugees, including overcrowding, policing, allegations of recruitment of refugees for military training and restrictions on the right to freedom of movement; and
  • the situation of Somali asylum-seekers and refugees in urban areas of Kenya, including police harassment and reports of refoulement. The Somali people constitute one of the largest refugee populations in the world. ...

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Refugee Agency, more than 1.4 million people are internally displaced in Somalia and over 600,000 Somali nationals have taken refuge in neighbouring countries. ... [Note: this and following statistics as of 2010.]

Kenya hosts the largest number of Somali refugees in the region, with 338,151 registered refugees as of September 2010, according to UNHCR. However, the overall number of Somali nationals living in Kenya is probably much higher, as many are not registered. While Somali nationals have sought refuge in Kenya for many years, the intensification of the armed conflict in southern and central Somalia since the end of 2006 has resulted in renewed large flows of Somali asylum-seekers fleeing to Kenya.

The large numbers of Somali nationals and the resources required to support them presents a monumental challenge for the Kenyan authorities. Amnesty International considers that Kenya disproportionately shoulders the responsibility for large refugee flows from Somalia. Kenya needs more support from the international community to provide durable solutions to such a large number of refugees, in terms of both increased support for local integration projects and a substantial increase in the numbers of Somali nationals benefiting from resettlement programmes in third countries.

Whilst undoubtedly Kenya has shouldered the lion's share of responsibility world-wide by hosting a huge Somali refugee population, the Kenyan authorities' restricting of the rights of Somali refugees and asylum-seekers on their territory is a matter of profound concern.

In January 2007, the Kenyan authorities closed the country's 682 km border with Somalia, and the main transit centre in Liboi operated by UNHCR8 for those crossing the border, following the resurgence of armed conflict in Somalia between the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG), supported by Ethiopian troops, and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in December 2006. The Kenyan government said that ICU fighters, whom it suspected of links with al-Qaeda, might enter Kenya and endanger national security. Following the border closure, reports of Kenyan security forces extorting bribes from Somali asylumseekers or forcibly returning them to Somalia have increased. At the same time, the Kenyan authorities have turned a blind eye to the flow of Somali asylum-seekers who continue to cross the border despite its official closure, failing to respond to their protection needs.

Further, the Kenyan authorities have not responded adequately to the increasing overcrowding in the Dadaab refugee camps and the consequent strain on the provision of essential services to asylum-seekers and refugees. Some 280,000 registered Somali refugees are confined to the three refugee camps in Dadaab in North Eastern Kenya, some 80 km from the Kenyan border with Somalia, where their access to shelter, water, sanitation and other essential services is impeded by severe overcrowding. As one refugee said to Amnesty International: "In Mogadishu, there was life, but there was no peace. Here, we have peace but we have no life." The refugees are generally not permitted to leave the camps, unless in exceptional circumstances, and they have almost no livelihood opportunities. Several refugees have told Amnesty International that for them the Dadaab camps are comparable to an open prison, from which there is no escape, except for the very few who are selected for resettlement in third countries.

In addition, refugees complain of insecurity in the camps, which they attribute to either tensions with other refugees, or to the alleged presence of members or sympathisers of al-Shabab, the Somali armed Islamist group that currently controls most of the territory in southern and central Somalia. Aid and protection agencies have told Amnesty International that there are not enough police officers present in the camps to adequately address security incidents. Refugees also complain about abuses by the Kenyan security forces in and around the camps and about their lack of accountability.

Many Somali nationals also live in Nairobi and other major cities in Kenya, some without proper documentation and therefore more vulnerable to exploitation. Urban Somali asylum-seekers and refugees are often harassed, arrested, arbitrarily detained, and at risk of ill-treatment and refoulement by the Kenyan security forces. Many report having to pay bribes to police officers in order to be released from detention and not to be forcibly returned to Somalia, in violation of the principle of non-refoulement.

Amnesty International has long called on the Kenyan government to ensure that Somali nationals fleeing armed conflict and human rights abuses in Somalia are able to cross the border and seek refuge and protection on Kenyan soil. The organization has also repeatedly called on the Kenyan government to allocate more land in North-Eastern Kenya where refugees could be hosted so as to decongest the camps. Kenyan government officials agreed that Ifo, one of Dadaab's three camps, could be extended and have also agreed in principle to the establishment of a fourth camp. The extension of Ifo is now underway but the building of a fourth camp has yet to begin. Amnesty International also has long-standing concerns about human rights violations by the Kenyan security forces and the impunity with which they operate. Somali refugees are particularly vulnerable to abuse by the security forces in Kenya, given the ambiguity of government policy towards them and the real risk that they can be forcibly returned to Somalia.

The Kenyan government needs to address Somalia's refugee crisis urgently in order to improve the lives of those it hosts on it territory, in line with its obligations under its own Refugee Act (2006) as well as international refugee law instruments, including the 1951 Convention related to the Status of Refugees (the UN Refugee Convention) and its 1967 Protocol. The Kenyan authorities have strongly denounced the deteriorating situation in Somalia, which Amnesty International welcomes, but they also have the duty to ensure that Somali nationals fleeing gross human rights abuses and indiscriminate violence can access refuge and adequate protection on Kenyan soil.

Life in the Camps

1. Lack of access to essential services as a result of congestion in the camps

Amnesty International is concerned that the Kenyan authorities have failed to respond adequately to the severe overcrowding in the Dadaab camps by turning a blind eye to the huge numbers of asylum-seekers continuously entering the country. The rights of the asylum-seekers and refugees to housing, water, sanitation, health and education have been severely compromised.

The three refugee camps in Dadaab, Ifo, Dagahaley and Hagadera were originally established in the early 1990s to accommodate 90,000 refugees divided equally between the camps. As of 15 March 2010, the refugee population in the three camps was 266,594 people, with almost 150,000 new arrivals since January 2007. The camps' resources and infrastructure have been stretched beyond capacity and the quality and quantity of essential services delivered heavily compromised.

The increase in population has not been matched by a commensurate rise in the land made available to host refugees. As a result, newly arrived refugees have had to stay with relatives and clan members. They cannot build their own shelters because there are no plots of land available. New arrivals are given plastic sheeting to use as tents, which are extremely hot during the day and do not protect them from bad weather conditions. Humanitarian agencies have seen their resources stretched as well and at times plastic sheeting and mosquito nets are not always readily available for those newly arrived.

The existing water infrastructure in the camps was designed for three times less the number of refugees actually in the camps and the water pipe system is old and strained. Families complain that water allocation is insufficient, and that there are frequent disputes at water taps. Refugees living on the edge of the camps have to walk long distances to collect water.

Although there are primary and secondary education facilities in the camps, they cannot cater for the needs of a growing population, including of unaccompanied minors, many of whom have arrived in the last three years and who do not have access to education. Those newly arrived from Somalia, where access to and quality of education is severely compromised by the armed conflict, face a huge challenge in adapting to a new education system. Many children, particularly girls, have never been to school when they were living in Somalia, other than duksi (Koranic school).

Medical facilities are also stretched, and psychosocial services and counselling are minimal, considering the high level of trauma that the vast majority of the population coming from Somalia have endured.

UNHCR has negotiated with the Kenyan government and the host community of Kenyans living in the areas where the camps are located to address the severe overcrowding of the camps. UNHCR has been given a provisional and conditional licence to build a fourth camp in Dadaab by the National Environment Management Authority, though the conditions are yet to be defined. In addition, the Garissa county council has approved land for the expansion of Ifo camp. This extension is currently under development and is known as Ifo II and III.

The part of the extension known as Ifo II will have a holding capacity of 40,000.

UNHCR plans to resettle an estimated 30,000 Ifo camp residents who live in heavily congested and flood-prone areas to Ifo II, as well as an additional 5,000 to 10,000 new arrivals who have settled on the periphery of Dagahaley camp. Work on Ifo III, which will also have a holding capacity of 40,000, is set to begin in early 2011 and will be reserved for newly arriving refugees. Though the Ifo extension is currently underway, there are reports that some members of the host community25 are attempting to delay this process.

In 2009, over 13,000 refugees were relocated from Dadaab to Kakuma, another refugee camp on the Kenyan border with Sudan.

These measures should gradually alleviate the severe overcrowding in the Dadaab camps. However, it is essential that conditions for the fourth camp are agreed in order to address the continuing influx of refugees and to ensure that the delivery of essential services adequately fulfil refugees' right to adequate shelter, food, water and education.

2. Policing in the camps

The Kenyan authorities have an obligation to ensure adequate protection of refugees in camps, including through effective policing. However, refugees complain of insecurity in the camps. Somali people who arrived recently alleged in interviews with Amnesty International that members and sympathisers of al-Shabab, the armed Islamist group in Somalia, were present in the camps or travelled through it.

Overcrowding has exacerbated insecurity and incidences of crimes among the refugees in the camps. Somali refugees report that as the number of people living in the camps increases, so do incidents of theft and sexual abuse. Humanitarian workers and UNHCR also report an increase in cases of sexual violence, including rape, early and forced marriages, and unwanted pregnancies in the camps. The majority of newly arrived refugees are women and children, including unaccompanied minors whose parents were killed in the armed conflict in Somalia, or who have been separated from them when fleeing. Aid agencies have expressed concern that children who have been adopted or are fostered by other families can be at risk of being used as domestic workers. Overcrowded shelters make women and girls particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Conflicts among individuals hailing from different clans within the Somali communities present in the camps, as well as between Somalis and refugees from other countries were also reported by many of the refugees interviewed by Amnesty International.

UNHCR has stressed that there are not enough police officers to address insecurity, theft and sexual abuse in the three Dadaab camps. Furthermore, there is distrust of the police among refugees, many of whom have been victims of abuses at the hands of Kenyan security forces while on their way to the camps.

Kenya's Minister for Internal Security established a committee in June 2010, following a Human Rights Watch report detailing instances of police abuse of Somali refugees and asylum-seekers near the Kenya-Somalia border. This committee appears to be tasked with investigating whether the Human Rights Watch allegations are true. The committee, comprised of officers from the Office of the Prime Minister, the Provincial Administration and the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims among others, travelled to Dadaab refugee camps to investigate these allegations in August 2010. In Dadaab, the committee spoke to UNHCR staff, NGOs and refugees. Though it was indicated informally to NGOs in Dadaab that the committee would produce a report detailing the findings of the committee, it is not clear whether these would be made public. To date, Amnesty International is not aware of any report published as a result of the committee's work.


Amnesty International believes that, for the police to work better with the refugee communities, a strong signal must be sent to the refugees and the police alike that police abuses will not be tolerated, and that police officers are not above the law.


4. Freedom of movement

Somali refugees in the Dadaab camps cannot venture out without special permission. Though no official policy to confine people to the camps36 has ever been enacted in Kenya, nevertheless, a de facto camp confinement policy is enforced by the Kenyan government. Refugees receive free humanitarian assistance in the camps, but if they reach urban areas, they have to be economically self-sufficient.

The camps offer almost no economic opportunities to refugees. Those who work for UNHCR and humanitarian agencies are not allowed to receive a wage; instead, they receive "incentives". With adequate shelter, water, sanitation and education and other essential services detrimentally affected by the severe
overcrowding in the camps, many refugees, the majority of whom are young people, prefer to go to urban areas, where they believe they would have more work opportunities and a chance to improve their life.

Whilst refugees do get free assistance in the camps, Amnesty International believes that the dearth of livelihood opportunities causes them hardship and increases their desperation, hindering self-reliance and creating push factors towards urban centres where they can become vulnerable to exploitation, as described below.

Refugees must apply for a movement pass to be able to travel outside the camps. Permission is granted to refugees needing medical treatment unavailable in the camps, pupils and students who have obtained a scholarship or a place to study in education establishments outside the camps, for family reasons (such as funerals), or for attending resettlement interviews set up by embassies of third countries. Those who need to be moved away from the Dadaab camps for their own protection are also considered.

Refugees travelling without permission risk detention or forced returns by the Kenyan security forces. Even those in possession of a movement pass for medical reasons have at times been arrested.

The authorities have discretion to restrict the issuance of travel documents on security grounds. For almost a year, a vetting committee, which comprises the Provincial Commissioner of North-Eastern Kenya, representatives of Kenya's security forces, including the national intelligence services and the military, and the Department of Refugee Affairs, has screened requests for movement passes on security grounds. The committee was reportedly set up because the Kenyan authorities considered that too many refugees were not returning to the camps after obtaining passes, and that some of the movement passes used were fake. This has further curtailed the issuing of movement passes, as national security concerns are prioritised over the rights of refugees, and because the committee does not meet often enough.

The government of Kenya should ensure that all recognised refugees, including those in Dadaab, have full freedom of movement throughout Kenya in accordance with relevant international standards.


Amnesty International recognises the immense challenge that the Kenyan authorities face whilst hosting the largest percentage worldwide of refugees from conflict-ridden Somalia, and the Kenyan government's security concerns related to the actions of Somali armed groups, present just on the other side of the border with Somalia.

However, this does not justify in any way human rights violations against Somali refugees and asylum-seekers on Kenyan soil. The Kenyan authorities are bound by international human rights and refugee law to provide refuge and protection to Somali nationals fleeing persecution and armed conflict, and to ensure that its security forces respect international human rights law at all times, including when dealing with refugees and asylumseekers. In addition, as some among the Kenyan authorities recognise, the closure of the Kenya/Somalia border and the screening centre do not help in addressing Kenya's security concerns, while having a negative impact on the rights of refuges.

The Kenyan authorities are also responsible for ensuring that all refugees are able to access adequate humanitarian aid on Kenyan soil, including adequate shelter, medical services and education, and that they are not denied their right to freedom of movement.

With no end in sight to the armed conflict in southern and central Somalia, the Kenyan government must urgently reconsider, with the help of the international community, how to provide durable solutions to Somali nationals who seek refuge in Kenya. Given the refugee crisis that Kenya faces, local integration projects that respect the rights and needs of both refugees and host communities and resettlement of Somali refugees to third countries must be considered. Donor countries have an important role to play in sharing international responsibility towards Somali refugees and asylum-seekers and in assisting the Kenyan government to fulfil its human rights obligations.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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