How fugitives become terrorists
by Simone Schlindwein
Kenya once had the largest refugee camp in the world. Then the refugees were declared terrorists and were told to go home.
Kenya is often seen as an island of relative stability in the East African region. The economically advanced country on the coast of the Indian Ocean, with one of the busiest ports on the continent, is a magnet for job seekers from all over Africa, for African and international investors, traders, transport companies and tourists from all over the world. Kenya and its metropolis, Nairobi, are also a magnet for refugees and migrant workers from the Horn of Africa and East Africa.
Nevertheless, Kenya’s recent history has been marked by conflict. Around the 2008 elections, there were violent ethnic riots in which more than 1,300 people were killed and around 600,000 were displaced nationwide. The 2013 and 2017 elections also saw serious human rights violations, violence and deaths. The result of the presidential election was contested by the opposition in both election rounds. In 2017, a repeat election had to be held after the Supreme Court decided to annul the results of the first one. Both times, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of former president Jomo Kenyatta, won against his arch-rival, Raila Odinga.
Kenya has experienced terrorist attacks regularly since 2010. The four-day Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi, in which 71 people were killed and approximately 200 wounded, is among the most vividly remembered. The Somali Islamist militia group Al-Shabaab, which controls large parts of the neighbouring country, is usually behind the terrorist attacks. Kenya provides part of the soldiers of the African Union (AU) peace mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and hosts a large number of Somali refugees. As a result of the wave of terrorist attacks between 2010 and 2013, the tourism sector, which accounts for around ten percent of the gross national product, collapsed, leading to economic recession.
Although Kenya’s economy is well developed in comparison to other countries, and the middle class should theoretically be growing steadily, the gap between the rich and the poor is still very wide due to extreme corruption and nepotism. So it is no wonder that the Kabira slum in Nairobi, of all places, has become the focus of violence, that Nairobi is generally regarded as a hub for small and large scale crime, and that the mega-rich Kenyans lock themselves behind highly secured walls.
Refugees under general suspicion
„There must be an end to sheltering refugees,” Kenya’s government spokesperson announced in May 2016. At that time, the world’s largest refugee camp was already a quarter of a century old. It had once been built out of the barren desert floor by UN aid agencies. Under the Somali name „Dadaab,” the tent city which is still not recorded on any map today, gained unfortunate fame at the height of the Somali civil war, as photos of children starved to the bone in the desert sand went around the world.
The camp was set up in 1992 in north-eastern Kenya, along the border with Somalia, for around 30,000 Somalis who were fleeing the outbreak of conflict in their homeland. Over the decades, Dadaab grew to become the largest refugee camp in the world. Around 600,000 people lived there under miserable conditions at the height of plight when war, drought and famine raged in Somalia in 2011 and 2012.
According to the UNHCR, there were around 476,000 refugees in Kenya in 2019, more than half of them from Somalia, a quarter of them South Sudanese. According to Kenyan legislation, refugees are only allowed to stay inside the camps, needing a special permit to leave. 44 percent of the refugees in Kenya live in Dadaab, 40 percent in the Kakuma refugee camp and 16 percent in urban areas, mostly in Nairobi.
Somali refugees have so far been granted automatic asylum in Kenya as soon as they were registered in Dadaab by the UNHCR. This regulation was lifted on the instructions of the Minister of the Interior. In the future, all applicants will be examined individually. For this purpose, a committee is to be set up which will compare the personal data of the asylum seekers with Secret Service databases in order to ensure that no terrorists are granted protection. This committee will be subordinate to the Ministry of the Interior, which also has the Secret Service and the Anti-terrorist unit of the Police under its authority. Together, these departments are to sift terrorists out of the asylum seekers.
This is also important in the case of a possible deportation. As the government has not registered asylum-seekers so far, it has not been able to deport rejected asylum seekers who are not recognised. Even if UNHCR denied refugee status to someone, there was no authority that could expel this person from the country. This should also be possible with the new law.
(Un)voluntary return home
Kenya and Somalia’s governments agreed to close the camps in Kenya as early as 2013, in a trilateral agreement with the UNHCR. The agreement set the deadline for voluntary return at the end of November 2016. Somali and Kenyan governments wanted to stick to this date and increased pressure accordingly. UNHCR, on the other hand, has been insisting on observing the international principle of voluntary return and maintains its projection until 2032. The deadline was therefore postponed by the government on several occasions, most recently by a potential deadline of 2020.
In 2019, two areas in Dadaab were already dismantled and the refugee shelters demolished. The camp once housed 600,000 people, but according to UNHCR figures from August 2019, there are only about 212,000 left, almost all of them Somalis, who are now being systematically pushed back into Somalia. The UN estimates that the final, voluntary return of all refugees could only take place by 2032. But for Kenya’s government things are not moving fast enough. In May 2016, the Ministry of the Interior, following a decision by the National Security Council, announced that the camp would be closed down at the end of November 2016. No new arrivals would be registered there. On the contrary: Somalis were to be brought back to their homeland via the border, which is about 100 kilometres away from Dadaab.
To this end, four zones in Somalia were defined as considered safe for returnees, including Somalia’s capital Mogadishu and the port city of Kismayo. Each returnee received 150 dollars and food rations for six months as a starter package from the UNHCR. Three-quarters of the returnees had decided to go to Kismayo, even though half of them said they did not originally come from there. But UNHCR and other NGOs invested in a camp for displaced persons in Kismayo. The vast majority stated in a UNHCR survey that they considered the region safe and would be received by family members upon arrival. The survey showed that most of the returnees were unemployed or students, and that they expected to find more employment opportunities in their home country. Kenya did not offer them a future. More than 10,000 Somalis gave as reasons for their “voluntary” return, fear of insecurity and deportation.
UNHCR states that around 84,000 Somalis from Kenya have voluntarily returned home since 2014, and another 70,000 are willing to return. UNHCR assures that the voluntary return programme will continue in 2020. In 2019, UNHCR expects about 10,000 voluntary returnees, but also about 30,000 new arrivals due to renewed fighting in Somalia.
Around 4,500 Somalis were flown to Western countries as part of the 2019 Resettlement Programme, mostly to the USA and Canada or Sweden. Recently, US media reported on so-called „fake” refugees among them. The refugees arriving in the USA were allegedly not Somali refugees at all, but Kenyans who had obtained a refugee passport via corrupt channels and smuggled themselves into the programme under a false identity.
The non-Somali refugees who had previously lived as a minority in Dadaab were transferred to another camp in the north-western region of Turkana. There, the second largest camp, Kakuma, located near the border with Southern Sudan, offers protection to about 191,000 refugees, most of them Southern Sudanese, according to the status of August 2019. According to government plans, Kakuma should have also been closed. But then, in July 2016, war broke out again in South Sudan, and thousands of Southern Sudanese women escaped across the border every day. Kenya was forced to keep the camp open. It was even expanded in the past years.
The back and forth of the Dadaab camp closure is in principle dependent on the question of whether the situation in Somalia is stable enough to allow the refugees to return in accordance with the international principle of „voluntariness.” Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was the first Somali President to visit Dadaab in June 2016. He promised his compatriots: „We do not want you to return under duress without shelter, education and healthcare being available to you.” He did not say anything about who would pay for this. Indirectly, Kenya and Somalia were thus backing the EU into a corner: by forcing the refugees out of the country and making Somalia’s readiness to receive returnees dependent on financial aid, the EU had no choice but to fill these gaps in order to prevent refugees making the journey to Europe.
The game worked: Kenya’s Minister of the Interior, Joseph Nkaissery, welcomed Somalia’s president to Dadaab at the time and stressed that Kenya would help with the repatriation. The date of the closure was maintained. Afterwards Mohamud met his counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta, in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. The beginning of a good neighbourly relationship? Never before had the two countries, which have been at war with each other since gaining independence in the early 1960s, been so united as they are now on the refugee issue.
The reason for this is their common interests vis-à-vis the international community: money and security. Kenya wants to get rid of the refugees because of the supposed terrorist threat that they pose and demands more money in order not to close the camps immediately. Somalia’s government wants its people back and hopes to finally get all the money that the international community has been channelling into Kenya until now. Together they are putting pressure on Western donors.
Battlefield in the war on terror
In order to close Dadaab permanently, the Ministry of the Interior cited the threats to national security and environmental destruction as reasons. The Ministry of the Interior is the most powerful ministry, reporting directly to the presidency, and is thus the extended arm of President Kenyatta’s power.
Somalia‘s Islamist terrorist militia, Al-Shabaab, has carried out numerous attacks within Kenya in recent years. In 2013, they killed 71 people in the capital Nairobi in the luxury shopping centre Westgate, a place where Kenya’s middle class and foreigners spend their weekends. In 2014, they attacked tourist resorts in Lamu, on the Indian Ocean coast. As a result, the tourism sector, one of Kenya’s most important economic sectors, collapsed. In 2015, in the eastern provincial capital of Garissa, not far from Dadaab, there was a massacre at the Garissa University College, in which 148 students were killed. All these attacks can be read as retaliatory actions by Al-Shabaab for the invasion of Kenyan troops into Somalia.
The invasion came shortly after the abduction of two Spanish nurses from Dadaab in 2012 who were there working for MSF. The operation ended in disaster and brought retaliatory actions. The militia continued to invade Kenya. Even in Dadaab, they laid explosive devices and rammed the barracks of the Kenyan security forces with car bombs. The UN agencies had to upgrade shelters with meter-high bulletproof concrete walls. Since then, NGO employees only move through the camp with military escort.
To date, the Kenyan army has deployed over 3,000 soldiers in Somalia as part of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, AMISOM, which is largely funded by the EU. At the beginning of 2016, the EU had announced that it would reduce its funding. Kenya then threatened to withdraw. Shortly afterwards, the EU approved further funds.
After the Westgate attack, Kenya’s Public Prosecutor’s office investigation led to telephone contacts of the assassins being found in the refugee camps. Since then, Dadaab has been portrayed as being a hotbed of terrorism. Anti-terrorist units stormed the tent city, arrested thousands of suspects, brought them to Nairobi and put them on trial within 24 hours.
Kenya’s police forces have only limited control over the camps, which are considered an extra-legal space with its own laws. Al-Shabaab has more say in this than the Kenyan police, who are considered so corrupt that security experts predict that they will fail in the fight against terror. The closure of Dadaab is therefore regarded as a preventive measure against further terrorist attacks.
International human rights organisations such as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) state that Somalia is not safe enough and that most returnees end up in camps for displaced persons in their home country. Many of the returnees interviewed by HRW only decided to return because they feared that Kenyan authorities would forcibly repatriate refugees across the border. This had already happened after the Westgate attacks, when thousands of Somalis were forcibly deported. Most people prefer to at least take the money and rations with them. This does not meet the definition of „voluntary,” and violates international law, says Victor Nyamori of Amnesty International in Kenya. There are more „push factors,” especially the fear of violent deportation, than „pull factors,” such as a better life at home.
Kenya’s human rights organisations took Kenya to court: the government’s decision to close Dadaab would violate international human rights law, according to the class action suit. HRW and Amnesty International interviewed families who had returned to Somalia and found neither safety nor shelter there. They then returned and sought protection again in Dadaab. HRW criticizes the Kenyan government for refusing to re-register these families and thus denying them their food rations.
NGOs maintain that a second course of action by the government is also unconstitutional: in a May 2016 order, the Minister of the Interior dissolved the Department for Refugee Affairs, which was subordinate to him. The department was first created in 2006 with the passing of the Refugee Act, which aimed at protecting the rights of refugees. The original Refugee and Asylum Act of 1993 had made no mention whatsoever of the Geneva Convention of 1951 relating to the rights of refugees.
The lawsuit by human rights organisations is formally directed against the government’s actions, explains Andrew Maina of Kenya’s Consortium for Refugee Rights (RCK), which is supporting the lawsuit. The Minister of the Interior cannot simply change laws and dissolve institutions by order, even if they are under his authority, says the lawyer and head of the RCK’s Research department. Even before the end of the closure period in November, the verdict should have been announced but at the first hearing the judge did not appear.
Maina finds the new refugee law, which was passed by Parliament in July 2019, particularly worrying, as it goes backwards in terms of rights and protection of refugees. To date, the refugee authorities have not fulfilled their obligation to actually register the refugees. The issuing of a refugee passport, by which they are internationally protected, has so far been carried out by the UNHCR. Until recently, Kenya’s Refugee Department in the Ministry of the Interior did not have an overview of how many people were living in the camps. This is to change now – also because of the alleged terror threat.
There would also be a reduction in aid money. “Preference is given to those refugees who flee to the West,” complained the Kenyan Minister of the Interior. The UNHCR budget for Somali and South Sudanese refugees has had enormous gaps in its provision for years. In December 2016, even the food rations had to be reduced by half. Kenya cannot close these gaps, and now fears being left alone with the supply of the refugees. „No other western country has taken in so many refugees,” said the Kenyan government.
Meanwhile, support is provided by Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan travelled to Nairobi in June 2016 and criticised the EU and the USA for the fact that developing countries alone would have to bear the burden of receiving and caring for refugees and the associated terrorism. Turkey has always been generously involved in Dadaab. Refugees call the Dadaab district with the largest mosque financed by Turkey „Istanbul.”
The international community is critical of the possible closure of Dadaab. US Secretary of State John Kerry already expressed his „deep concern” in 2016 and warned against forced repatriations. The UN urges to be „flexible” in the deadline for the closure of the camp and has asked Western donors to increase the budget for Somali refugees. All refugee camps in Kenya are maintained exclusively by international donors. According to the law, refugees are not allowed to move freely in the country but must live exclusively in camps. Unlike in Uganda, where refugees are allocated a piece of land to grow corn and beans and to feed themselves in the long term, Kenyan law does not allow „permanent” housing to be built. Thus, even after 25 years, the people still have to live in tents.
Thus, all refugees are automatically dependent on aid from the international community: from food, healthcare, education to housing. For the refugees a miserable situation, for the donors an expensive undertaking. Kenya thus makes it clear: the camps are only temporary, integration into Kenyan society is impossible.
It is also not easy for Somalis in Kenya to acquire citizenship. Since the borders were drawn in colonial times, a Somali minority has been living in Kenya, most of them in the North Eastern Province along the Somali border, with the district capital Garissa and the camp Dadaab as the largest urban and economic factors. After independence from the British colonial rulers, the decision was made to attribute the province to Somalia. The local Somali-speaking population was in favour, the independence government in Nairobi against. They refused the secession. Since then, there have been repeated uprisings, which have been violently suppressed. Massacres against the Somali minority have been documented. Until 1992, when Dadaab was founded, a state of emergency prevailed in the province. The collective suspicion of terrorist activity regarding Somali refugees can also be explained against this background.
Kenya and the world
Nairobi has become a magnet for migrant workers from all over East and Central Africa. In the course of integration into the East African Union (EAC) and its agreement on the free movement of goods and persons, including with regard to labour and services, more and more well educated Ugandans, Rwandans or Burundians are looking for jobs in Nairobi, especially in the IT and service sectors. On the other hand, it is becoming more difficult for Western employees of international NGOs to obtain work permits in Kenya. The government wants to give well-paid jobs to their own countrymen. Europeans and Americans are systematically denied work permits.
Even though Kenya is now a lower middle-income country, development in the periphery is lacking and corruption is enormous. The country remains dependent on development aid money. However, this is being increasingly reduced, and the extreme corruption is a deterrent to Western donors. Official development cooperation (ODA) funds can no longer be claimed due to Kenya’s categorisation as a lower middle-income country.
In terms of migration, Kenya is de facto uninteresting for the EU: just 480 irregular migrants from Kenya arrived in the EU in 2015. Of these, 130 people were turned away at the external border, 310 asylum applications were denied, and 60 granted. Kenya is considered a safe country of origin – with the exception of LGBT persons. According to a 2013 ruling of the European Court of Justice, they are entitled to asylum in the EU.
Fears that tens of thousands of Somalis will set off for Europe in the wake of the closure of Dadaab are unfounded. The Refugee Spokesperson for Dadaab, Abdullahi Ali Aden, states that many young men’s intent of migrating is affected by a lack of money. A trip to Europe would only be possible by boat, but due to the lack of freedom of movement in Kenya, the numerous roadblocks and a boat trip through the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea being more than 10,000 dollars, such a trip would be unaffordable for the refugees in Dadaab. Many wish to go to Uganda because they enjoy more freedoms and rights to stay there – but not to Europe.
Accordingly, at the 2015 EU-Africa Migration Summit in Malta’s capital Valletta, Kenya was promised very little money from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. As part of its support for pastoralist peoples in the border region between South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya, the EU has invested €28 million in agricultural projects and food security. In addition, €12 million has been invested in improving economic opportunities for young people in structurally weak regions along the coast with Somalia or in the north, along the border with South Sudan.
The European Commission increased the budget of the Action Plan for so-called mixed migration flows in the Horn of Africa to six million in 2015. The countries, including Kenya, are to be supported in developing their capacities to deal with migratory movements. However, Kenya’s share is marginal.
Kenya is also a rather neglected partner country of the EU in the so-called Khartoum process. Under the banner of „Better Migration Management” (BMM), the EU will use €45 million to implement projects to better regulate migration in nine countries in the Horn of Africa. However, Kenya plays only a small role in this process due to its location – far away from Europe.
So far, the EU has been providing financial support to UNHCR and NGOs active in Dadaab. Over the past eight years, CARE has received €1.5 million annually from the EU aid agency ECHO for water supply and sanitation projects. The Federal Foreign Office has also financed water supply and education projects in Dadaab. However, since the government announced its planned closure in 2016, international donors have found it increasingly difficult to provide financial assistance because they cannot plan budgets due to the uncertain time frame.
The German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) is therefore providing support for South Sudanese refugees and host communities in Kenya in the Kakuma refugee camp through measures for food security and better medical care. Strengthened conflict management mechanisms are aimed equally at the refugees and the local population in the border region with South Sudan, i.e. in and around the Kakuma camp. All projects in Dadaab were already completed in 2016.
The German government is considered Kenya’s most important partner after the USA. Development Minister Gerd Müller visited Dadaab in March 2016: „60 million refugees worldwide present many developing countries with enormous challenges,” he said there: „90 per cent have found refuge in developing countries. In a joint effort, the international community must give the people on the ground new prospects.”
Billions of dollars in armaments
After the Westgate attack, Kenya upgraded the defence budget for the financial year 2016/2017 to an enormous $2.6 billion, including $1.2 billion for the Secret Service and $1.2 billion for the Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for the Police and Anti-terrorist special forces – a gigantic budget for an African country. The upgrade is visible: surveillance cameras hang everywhere in Nairobi, heavily armed security forces of the Anti-terrorist units are stationed even in supermarkets and banks. The international airport in Nairobi has been equipped with surveillance cameras, as has the container port in the coastal city of Mombasa. Each departure lounge of the major airport in Nairobi is equipped with full-body scanners.
Kenya’s border posts have also been equipped with computers, fingerprint scanners and facial recognition systems nationwide. In recent years, an Israeli company has been printing biometric passports for Kenyans and building up the databases for them. Biometric identity cards were also issued. There was some controversy when the contract was awarded. Allegedly the President’s Office decided which companies were awarded the contract. A British security company with a subsidiary in Kenya was awarded the contract to print the passports and Nadra, an agency of the Pakistani Ministry of the Interior, is developing the software. In 2017, the member states of the East African Union (EAC) introduced common passports.
Since the increased use of security technologies, airlines have started offering direct flights between Nairobi and Mogadishu for the first time. Through the electronic visa procedure, Somalis can now also enter Kenya. Every visa application is checked against the Secret Service database. Direct flights to the USA will also be possible again from 2017. The state airline Kenya Airways had suffered enormous losses due to the security risks and was on the verge of bankruptcy. Kenya’s tourism sector, after all the most important economic sector, is slowly recovering. It had collapsed following the Westgate attack and the attacks in the coastal town of Lamu. The trust of Western safari tourists in the security agencies is slowly coming back. In 2016 the number of tourists increased again.
A wall from Israel
„Whatever the cost,” Kenya’s Vice President William Ruto stressed when he announced the decision to build a wall with Somalia in 2015. The border section is over 700 kilometres long, right through the desert and the Al-Shabaab region. A concrete wall, border installations, surveillance cameras and patrol vehicles are needed.
German companies have also shown interest in this major contract. The German International Chamber of Commerce organized a „market reconnaissance trip” to Kenya in 2015 in the field of civil security technologies. Meetings with the Ministry of Defence and Anti-terrorist units were on the agenda. Germany’s leading defence and security companies, such as Rheinmetall and Siemens, were present.
In the end, the Israeli company Magal Security was awarded the contract for the construction of the wall and the expansion of security at the airport and port. Israel proved to be a close partner since the West Gate attack. This is no coincidence: the shopping centre is owned by an Israeli investor. Today, Israeli plain-clothes guards are posted at the entrance gates with security scanners. Kenya’s sprawling security sector now has good relations with Mossad, Israel’s Secret Intelligence Service, as part of the war on terror.
Israel’s border facilities with Palestine, Egypt and Jordan are considered to be the prototype of modern high-tech fences with ground sensors, thermal imaging cameras as well as satellite and drone surveillance from the air. Kenya’s ambitious plans, however, fail in the face of reality: construction work, protected by the army, had to be suspended due to Al-Shabaab attacks. The effort is considered overpriced since the terrorist militia has long had bases within Kenya. George Morara, Vice-director of Kenya’s Human Rights Commission, recently criticised the construction of the wall as a „summit of senselessness.”