A new report from Human Rights Watch says refugees fleeing the chaos in war-torn Somalia are enduring further hardship at the hands of Kenyan police, including rape, beatings and blackmail.
Helpless refugees are being targeted by Kenyan police, the report says
As Somalia descends further into lawlessness, desperate people crossing the border to more stable Kenya are being abused by police there, being subjected to high levels of violence and intimidation, according to Human Rights Watch.
"People fleeing the mayhem in Somalia - the vast majority are women and children - are welcomed to Kenya with rape, whippings, beatings, detention, extortion and summery deportation," said Gerry Simpson, the report's principle author.
The rights watchdog's new 99-page report, "Welcome to Kenya," draws on interviews with more than 100 refugees. They talk of the widespread police extortion along some 200 kilometers (124 miles) of the border of asylum seekers who are trying to reach three large refugee camps near the Kenyan town of Dadaab, the world's largest refugee settlement.
Simpson paints a grim picture of refugees' being intercepted by police and asked for money. If they can pay the bribes, they are allowed to continue on to the refugee camps. If not, they are often taken to police stations and wrongfully charged with unlawful presence in Kenya.
It is during that arrest and detention process that all these abuses are taking place, he told Deutsche Welle.
"They are detained in inhumane and degrading conditions, with up to 30 or 40 people crammed into a cell meant for three or four people," he said. "Men, women, children and even infants are all treated alike."
Many refugees who attempt to avoid police on the main roads fall victim to rape and theft by common criminals on the small paths en route to the refugee camp some 100 kilometers from the Somali border.
However, even if refugees do reach the camps, their troubles are hardly over since police violence there often continues. Police often fail to prevent, investigate or prosecute sexual violence against women and girls in the camps by other refugees and Kenyans.
Somalia has been wracked with violence for almost two decades and control of the nation continues to slip away from the UN-backed government of the failed state. According to the UN, intense fighting in south-central Somalia is now compelling more people to flee their homes than from any other place in the world.
Human Rights watch estimates that more than 320,000 registered Somali refugees now live in Kenya. In just the first four months of 2010, more then 40,000 arrived.
The refugee crisis in Kenya continues to escalate
The situation for refugees was aggravated in 2007 when Kenya closed its border with its volatile neighbor after Islamist rebels who have been tied to al Qaeda took control of Somalia. Kenyan officials said they fear the fighting could spill over the border.
Before that closing, the UN had operated a refugee transit center in the border town of Liboi where Somalis could be processed and screened before being sent on to Dadaab. But that center has been closed and now any foreigner found on the Kenyan side of the border can be considered an "unlawful presence," despite a law that allows refugees 30 days to register with authorities.
The Kenyan cabinet minister in charge of the police said the government will investigate the allegations.
"Any unlawful action that may have been taken by a police officer is not a reflection of government policy," said George Saitoti, Kenya's Minister of State for Internal Security, in a May 5 letter to Human Rights Watch after seeing a summary of the report.
Kenya's police deputy spokesperson Charles Owino said authorities were surprised by the allegations since none of the cases cited in the report had been passed on to the police for investigation. He said the government had formed a committee to investigate but defended the focus on security in the region.
"We had a serious bombing in this country and therefore we cannot compromise matters of security. Any person is capable of undertaking terrorism activites and therefore we are not targeting a particular group," he told the Voice of America.
Critical of UN
The report was also strongly critical of the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, condemning it for its failure to identify and report on the abuse occurring in the camps. HRW called on the UN agency to step up its monitoring of the situation and improve its advocacy efforts with authorities.
Somalia has been riven by conflict for almost two decades
"After almost 20 years of these camps, the agency has not put into place a monitoring system and actively sought out information that we have been pointing out," Simpson told Deutsche Welle, adding that in 2009, UNHCR only documented two cases of police abuse while he himself discovered many more during only six days he personally spent in the camps last year.
Last month, a top-level UNHCR delegation visited Somali refugee camps in several countries, including Kenya. "The burden for these countries is enormous," the UNHCR's Deputy High Commissioner T. Alexander Aleinikoff said, adding that government officials he met all expressed growing anxiety about being able to cope with a massive influx of refugees with so many basic needs.
Simpson described conditions in the camp as "horrible," saying they do not meet accepted international standards for refugee facilities. For example, he said, the standards mandate that 20 liters of potable water be made available per person per day. At the Dadaab camps, that number is closer to four or six liters.
The UN body said it was preparing contingency arrangements and a fund-raising appeal amid fears that the fighting in Somalia could intensify and drive thousands more refugees over the border this year.
Analysts worry that Somalia could be losing an entire generation of young people who are growing up in camps or other areas without proper educational or activity programs. Boredom or idleness could drive them into the hands of Islamists, who are known to try to recruit in the refugee camps themselves.
Author: Kyle James
Editor: Rob Mudge