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Kenya: Punishing Refugees Won't Stop Terror Attacks

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The neighborhood of Eastleigh, in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, is home to tens of thousands of Somali refugees. It is one of many cities around the world -- from Minneapolis to Toronto to Helsinki -- where Somalis have settled in large numbers and built communities of their own. In recent months, however, Eastleigh has suffered a series of grenade and bomb attacks. Kenyan police have also been ambushed near the Kenyan-Somali border - not far the battlefields of southern Somalia, where fighting between Kenyan soldiers and Al Shabab militants continues.

It was against this backdrop that the Kenyan government recently issued a disparaging directive regarding Somalis living in Eastleigh and other towns. Citing security concerns, the Department of Refugee Affairs announced that the registration of refugees in urban areas would cease, that all refugees living in cities should move into camps, and that humanitarian agencies must stop providing aid to urban refugees immediately.

One cannot fault the Kenyan government for trying to protect its citizens, but these drastic measures threaten to cause far more harm than good -- certainly for refugees, but also for Kenya's internal security. Living conditions for Somalis in Kenya will worsen, and tensions between local communities and refugee populations could flare up. Additionally, due to the cessation of urban registration, Kenyan authorities will no longer be able to track Somalis who find their way into the country's cities.

For years, Kenya has served as a generous host to refugees and asylum seekers from east and central Africa, with the vast majority coming from Somalia. There are currently over 500,000 Somali refugees in Kenya, displaced by decades of conflict and food insecurity in their home country. Most live in the sprawling and overcrowded Dadaab refugee camps in North Eastern Province, but a great many have settled in and around cities like Nairobi and Mombasa.

Unlike those Somalis living in camps, urban refugees are not entitled to receive food or shelter from the UN Refugee Agency. But until last week's directive, they were allowed to receive official refugee status and make a life for themselves in Kenya's cities. This status protected them from deportation, granted them access to education and health facilities, and allowed them to work and support their families. Placing these refugees in camps would change all of that, making them largely dependent on outside aid. It must also be stressed that the Dadaab camps are already far beyond capacity, and international financing has reduced drastically. Pushing tens of thousands of urban Somalis into these camps will only make conditions there more desperate and more volatile.

The government's pronouncement also gives Kenyan security personnel a green light to abuse, harass, and extort members of the refugee community. Somalis living in Eastleigh have always faced the threat of persecution and arbitrary arrest. (Disturbingly, some Kenyan police refer to refugees as "ATMs," due to the frequency with which they are required to pay bribes to avoid detention.) Following the recent grenade attacks in Eastleigh, for example, police conducted wide sweeps and arrested hundreds of Somalis as "suspects." The government's new directive is likely to make things worse, and it will perpetuate the xenophobic view that all Somali refugees are a threat to Kenya's national security. As a young Eastleigh resident explained to a Refugees International field team earlier this year, "We suffer two times. We suffer harassment by Al Shabab in Somalia, and then we suffer again in Kenya because people think we are Al Shabab."

Finally, though Kenya has said its policy change stems from an "unbearable and uncontrollable threat to national security," this directive is more likely to harm internal security than improve it. By registering new arrivals from Somalia, authorities have been able to identify and screen out those Somalis who may pose a real threat to local communities. The termination of urban registration will not end the flow of refugees to Kenya's cities; instead, rising tensions and the threat of deportation will simply force those individuals underground.

Kenya certainly faces legitimate security concerns. And with the country's presidential campaign heating up, it is understandable that the government wants to make its city streets safer and more secure. But labeling all refugees as a security threat is an extreme step that Kenya's government may soon regret.