f. Protection of Refugees
The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern. In 2017 the country pledged to apply the UNHCR Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework to enhance refugee self-reliance, increase access to solutions, and improve conditions in countries of origin for safe and voluntary returns. Implementation, however, was largely lacking.
In 2017 the High Court blocked the government’s plan to close the Dadaab refugee camp complex, ruling the plan violated the principle of nonrefoulement and refugees’ constitutional rights to fair administrative action. As of year’s end, the government had not appealed the High Court’s ruling. While the court’s 2017 decision eased pressure on Somalis who feared the camp would close by the government-imposed deadline, during the year the government expressed a renewed interest in closing Dadaab, requesting UNHCR to relocate all refugees from Dadaab. The camp closure discussion created uncertainty for the more than 200,000 refugees residing there.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Police abuse, including detention of asylum seekers and refugees, continued, often due to a lack of awareness and understanding of the rights afforded to those holding refugee or asylum-seeker documentation or those who illegally entered the country and were apprehended. Most detainees were released after a court appearance or intervention by organizations such as the Refugee Consortium of Kenya or Kituo Cha Sheria.
During the year the security situation in Dadaab improved but remained precarious. There were no attacks on humanitarian workers and no detonations of improvised explosive devices within 15 miles of the refugee complex during the year. The security partnership between UNHCR and local police remained strong and led to improvements in camp security through community policing and neighborhood watch initiatives.
Sexual and gender-based violence against refugees and asylum seekers remained a problem, particularly for vulnerable populations, including women, children, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) refugees and asylum seekers. Reported incidents included domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, physical assault, psychological abuse, female genital mutilation mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and early and forced marriage, particularly of Sudanese, South Sudanese, and Somali girls (see section 6). Although there was increased community engagement to reduce sexual and gender-based violence and strengthened partnerships, including with the local authorities, sexual and gender-based violence continued to affect women and girls due to their low social and economic status in the community. Most urban refugees resided in informal settlements, where insecurity and sexual and gender-based violence was rampant. Women in female-headed households and young girls separated from families due to conflict were most at risk due to lack of male protection within their families. Girls and boys out of school were at risk of abuse, survival sex, and early marriage. Despite strong awareness programs in the camps, underreporting persisted due to community preference for maslaha, a traditional form of jurisprudence prevalent in the region, as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism; shortages of female law enforcement officers; limited awareness of what constitutes sexual and gender-based violence among vulnerable populations; and the medical forensic requirements for trying alleged rape cases.
Refugees have equal access to justice and the courts under the law, although following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, courts scaled down operations, prioritizing urgent cases and deferring nonurgent cases. Refugees were often unable to obtain legal services because of the prohibitive cost and their lack of information on their rights and obligations, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. UNHCR, through its partners, continued to provide legal assistance and representation to refugees to increase their access to justice. The law specifically provides that refugees are eligible to receive legal aid services. The law, however, had not been fully operationalized.
Many refugees dealt with criminality in accordance with their own customary law and traditional practices, although some opted to go through the country’s justice system. Other security problems in refugee camps included petty theft, banditry, and ethnic violence, according to UNHCR.
During the year UNHCR assisted 79 persons to return voluntarily to their places of origin, all of whom returned to Ethiopia. Insecurity and unfavorable conditions in countries of origin such as South Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia, as well as border closures and movement restrictions due to COVID-19, hindered returns.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for providing protection to camp-based refugees. The government generally coordinated with UNHCR to provide assistance and protection to refugees in the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps and urban areas. The government had yet to register more than 15,000 refugees and asylum seekers estimated to reside in Dadaab, the majority of whom were Somali. Pressure from UNHCR and the international community resulted in the government’s registration of a number of extremely vulnerable individuals. South Sudanese refugees received prima facie refugee status.
According to UNHCR, as of September 30, the country hosted 499,219 registered refugees and asylum seekers, including 221,102 in the Dadaab refugee camp complex, 197,341 in Kakuma camp and Kalobeyei settlement, and 80,776 in urban areas. Most refugees and asylum seekers were from Somalia (269,541), with others coming from South Sudan (122,610), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (44,763), Ethiopia (28,915), Burundi (16,158), and other countries (17,232). Most refugees arriving in Kakuma were from South Sudan, and the refugee population in Dadaab was primarily Somali. New arrivals also included individuals from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and Uganda. The tripartite agreement on voluntary repatriation between Kenya, Somalia, and UNHCR expired in 2018, although the spirit of the agreement and coordination remained. Since 2014 a total of 84,981 Somali refugees had voluntarily repatriated under the agreement.
The RAS, responsible for refugee management in the country, maintained a cooperative working relationship with UNHCR, which continued to provide it with technical support and capacity building.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees’ freedom of movement was significantly restricted due to the country’s strict encampment policies as well as COVID-19 (see section 2.d.).
Employment: By law refugees are generally not permitted to work in the country. While the Kenya Citizenship and Immigration Act allows recognized refugees to engage in any occupation, trade, business, or profession upon approval of applications for a Class M work permit, many barriers and red tape hinder refugees’ ability to secure work permits. Only refugees with specialized skills or those who could invest were successful in obtaining a work permit from the Immigration Department.
Access to Basic Services: Despite the encampment policy, many refugees resided in urban areas, even though they lacked documentation authorizing them to do so. This affected their access to basic government services, including the National Hospital Insurance Fund, education, employment, business licenses, financial institutions, mobile phones, and related services. In addition they were vulnerable to arrest, police harassment, and extortion.