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This is what it means to be a refugee in Kenya

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DAILY NATION — For many years, Kenya has been considered a haven of peace for its relative stability. As a result, this makes it an attractive host to those fleeing their countries due to political volatility, which tends to fuel violence.

For the last three decades, Kenya has welcomed and hosted refugees and asylum seekers from Somalia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda and South Sudan.

Five refugees living in Kenya talk about what pushed them out of their countries and put into perspective what being a refugee really means. They also share their future prospects and reveal what they think about Kenyans.

Mercy Akuot fled South Sudan in 2008 when she was 15 years. Her family had married her off to an elderly man behind her back, something she was dead set against. She fled to Uganda, but the man pursued and tracked her down in Kampala.

“In his hands, I suffered physical violence, rape and unlawful detention, but I vowed never to become his wife,” she narrates.

For a poor, lonely girl in a foreign land, she says, there was little she could do to rescue herself from this abuse. When the opportunity to escape presented itself, Akuot crossed over to Kenya in 2015 and was admitted as an immigrant at Kakuma Refugee Camp.

“This has become my home since,” she simply says.

“I am a young woman with dreams, but so many hindrances stand in my way. I wish to become a women’s advocate, to fight for the rights of other women,” she says.

Owing to the turbulence that characterised her teenage phase, Akuot did not have the opportunity to learn beyond Form Six (Kenya’s equivalent of Form Four).

“I won a scholarship to study a degree in public relations, but as a refugee, I could not directly enrol at the university, having not studied in Kenya. I was, therefore, asked to study for a diploma first,” she says, adding that she is unable to raise the money required.

Akuot is currently volunteering with Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in their women empowerment programme in the camp.

“This engagement has given me the necessary vitality to fight for the rights of women in communities where women’s opinions do not matter.”

She emphasises, “If a man has the right to education, opportunities and the right to make critical decisions touching on his personal life, so does a women.” Akuot has not been in touch with her family for 10 years.

She says, “I long to see them, but I fear returning home. I feel safer at the camp.”

“I need bigger opportunities to explore. If Kenya offers me that (and it has so far) I’d be glad to stay on as long as it takes,” she says.

Omot Oman, 23, is an Ethiopian refugee who has lived at the Dadaab refugee complex since 2004. He was nine years when his family moved to Kenya following clan clashes in Ethiopia.

He attended primary and secondary school in Dadaab, Garissa County. According to him, schools within the camp are understaffed and lack essential learning equipment and materials.

Omot says, “One book is shared by more than five learners. Most teachers are volunteers. Some of them are not trained to teach, which affects the quality of their teaching.”

“There is also no electricity in the camp. Students can therefore only read during daytime. When I joined high school, at night, I read using a candle for four years,” he reflects.

The UNHCR, he says, gives them a monthly voucher for buying food, in a system known as “Bamba Chakula”.

He explains, “Every family is issued with a SIM card that acts as a bank account. UNHCR sends Sh1, 400 per person for buying food to the line, but the money is too little considering that most refugees do not have other sources of income.”

“Other times the money gets to us late, which forces families to borrow or starve,” Omot says.

The escalation of terror activities by Al Shabaab has also tilted the balance of life in the Dadaab complex, according to him.

He says, “The fighters target the camp for attacks or radicalisation of those living here. It has never been so scary living here. You never know what might happen tomorrow.”

These setbacks, however, have not deterred the youngster from following his heart.

“I am an interpreter with UNHCR, which earns me some allowance. It’s a job I love. I also compose poems whenever I am free,” he says.

While he sees Kenya as generally peaceful, he lives in dread of unrest.

“I was in Kenya during the 2007/2008 ethnic violence. I was disturbed that my host country was descending into war just like my own country. Peace in Kenya means I can continue living here without worrying about my security.”

Jean Claude is a Congolese asylum seeker based at Kakuma Refugee camp in Turkana County. Jean’s parents sent him to Kenya in 2009 due to political mayhem in his home town, Lubumbashi Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was 15.

“Some of my relatives wanted me to join the rebels fighting in our region. My mother was opposed to it though, fearing I might die in war, so she sent me here through a friend. I haven’t been in touch with my family since,” he narrates.

Most of his age mates who remained in Congo, he says, were forcefully recruited to guerrilla warfare. While Jean is glad this spared him from taking part in armed conflict, he finds fault in his family’s decision to send him here.

“My family dumped me in Kenya. I didn’t know anyone here. How I was going to fare here was entirely upon me,” he recollects.

“My initial days in Kenya were a nightmare. I didn’t know Kiswahili or English. I only spoke French and Kilingala. The little Congolese version of Kiswahili that I knew didn’t help me either.”

Jean was moved from a refugee centre in Kangemi where he had stayed for a month and taken to Kakuma.

“It was very hostile at the camp. I worked as a barber for one year and as a boda boda rider for two years to make ends meet. I could not proceed with my education beyond Form One,” he says.

Luckily for him, FilmAid (a non-profit humanitarian organisation that uses film to educate and entertain refugees around the world) offered him a scholarship to study journalism and film-making in 2016.

“I have participated in the production of two documentaries so far, Lovers no Boundaries and Shape Up for FilmAid. I have also been part of a music video project with Wyre,” says Jean, who describes himself as a top-notch videographer and can now speak and write fluent English and Kiswahili.

“I am forgetting French and Kilingala since I hardly ever use them anymore. I am more Kenyan than Congolese, and finally, after a long time, I am happy to be here,” he says.

The one thing he would like to see change at the camp is ease of movement.

“You cannot just leave the camp. When you want to, you must obtain a permit and give a valid reason explaining why and where you wish to go. The permit takes a week to process. As a young person craving freedom, I feel inhibited to a great extent,” he says.

Of the instability that tends to besiege the country during the election period, he remarks,

“What happened in my country taught me that anyone’s status can change anytime. People who are peacefully living in their country should therefore value this stability.”

Jean intends to move beyond acting to become a film director and establish his own media production company, “to make enough money to change my life and the lives of others like me”.

“I have a Kenyan girlfriend who I hope to settle down with someday. Ultimately, I want to trace my family back in DRC,” he says.

Abdi Halane, 29, has been a refugee in Kenya for the last 19 years. The chaos that engulfed Somalia in the 1990s forced Halane and her family to flee Mogadishu in 1999. They came to Kenya through Ethiopia.

“There were bombings all over the city. Getting essential commodities was difficult, which made life very harsh. I was 10 when my family decided to leave Somalia.”

Ethiopia would not be a peaceful host to the thousands of families fleeing the country since it was also going through political turmoil at the time.

“We had to seek refugee elsewhere, and Kenya was an easy choice for us. Along the way, we had to contend with starvation, lack of clean water, and lack of medical services. I survived measles and fever to get to Nairobi,” she recalls.

She and other refugees were hosted at various mosques in Nairobi before UNHCR ferried them to Kakuma Refugee camp. Halane says that at some point during the journey here, she was separated from some of her relatives, who she has never seen since. In 2005, she was married off. She was only 14 years. In 2007, her husband died in a road accident. At the time, she had two girls, now 13 and 10 years.

“Living without a male figure in the camp is difficult. I have been mocked and humiliated just because I don’t have a husband,” she says.

Furthermore, raising two girls with good morals in a camp setting where sexual immorality thrives has been a daunting task, she says.

“As a mother, I can’t afford to fail my daughters, whatever the situation is. That’s what motherhood is about: remaining steadfast for your children.”

Refugees registered by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) are entitled to free medical care and education for their children. But as Halane explains, the provisions are not always enough.

“If you need specialised medical care such as surgery, for instance, you must pay from your own pocket. Such services are only available outside the camp. Besides, most refugees don’t have medical insurance,” she laments.

To supplement the provisions given by UNHCR, Halane runs a photo studio within the camp.

“I mainly take portrait photos for individuals and families. Sometimes NGOs that operate in the camp invite me to take photos and film their events. The little money I get is what keeps me going,” she says, adding that photography also helps her to keep boredom at bay since her daughters are in boarding school.

She is also a community mobiliser with Windle International Kenya, an NGO that promotes and coordinates education and training programmes for refugees and needy Kenyans.

“We teach various refugee groups about the importance of education and encourage them to abandon rites such as female circumcision and early marriage for girls, which are practised widely in my Somali community,” Halane says.

Does she dream of ever returning to Somalia?

“Going back to one’s country is the dream of every refugee. So, yes. But only when the situation there is calm,” she says.

Lilian Ochan’s family fled the Gambella Massacre in Ethiopia in 2003 and settled in South Sudan. For the last 15 years, her family have been refugees in Kenya and South Sudan.

The 2010 independence referendum in Sudan, however, made matters worse for refugees. As native tribes in the southern part of the country were gearing for independence, refugees, were isolated and accused of various crimes.

Ochan says,

“Some Sudanese communities, who didn’t want us in their country accused us of scheming to occupy their land. It was a fearful period.”

These events and the fear of a bloody secession pushed the refugees out of South Sudan to Kenya.

“My then 12-year-old sister and I travelled from Juba to Nairobi by ourselves, leaving our parents behind. We later joined one of our aunts at Dadaab,” she says.

Life in the camp, she recalls, was a struggle for survival.

“My aunt was in a boarding school away from the camp. We were, therefore, on our own most of the time,” she narrates,

As a 14-year-old who knew very little at the time, Ochan was compelled to play the role of mother to her younger sister.

““As teenagers, it was not safe for us to be on our own at the camp without a guardian. Thankfully, with the support of the UNHCR, we joined a boarding school in Juja, in the outskirts of Nairobi city.”

But school life presented other challenges.

“We could hardly interact in English. We only spoke Amharic. We were also teased for being older than the rest of the students. I felt so humiliated, I wanted to quit. The only thing that kept me there was that life in the camp was not any better.”

When the government of Kenya issued a notice to close down the Dadaab Complex in 2017, UNHCR relocated Ochan and other non-Somali refugees to Kalobeyei Settlement in Turkana County.

“The move was very disruptive. We had to start life afresh. We have since settled down in the new camp though,” she says.

Police in Kenya, she says, are their main threat.

“The alien ID card issued by the government of Kenya bears all the features of an ordinary Kenyan ID. The only difference is that it identifies you as a refugee,” she says.

The police, she says, extort money from them, insisting that the alien card is only valid within the camp. This is not all, some banks, she regrets, do not allow refugees to operate accounts, which is inconveniencing.

“I therefore have to carry cash, which is risky. Alternatively, I have to operate mobile money, which encourages wastage especially since I love to buy new clothes and accessories,” she smiles, and adds,

In 2016, Ochan decided to try her hand at modelling. But this too was not easy.

“One modelling agency dismissed me just because I was a refugee. They argued that I could not be relied on to commit to the job. This really broke my heart,” she narrates.

She was encouraged a bit though, when she was crowned Miss World Refugee at Kakuma in 2017.

“I have accepted my status as a refugee. I have refused to allow the tag of refugee to define who I want to become. I want to pursue runaway and commercial modelling, and use my story to inspire other women,” she says in a determined tone.

It is a crisis

Statistics from the United Nation High Commission for Refugee (UNHCR) show that 6.4 per cent of Kenya’s population (488, 415 people) was composed of refugees as of January 2018.

Fifty-eight per cent of refugees in Kenya (or 283, 281 people) are from Somalia.

While the government has initiated a voluntary repatriation programme, specifically by shutting down the Dadaab complex, most of them choose to remain In Kenya.

The fragile political, economic and security situation in their countries deters them from returning. Youths who were born to refugee families and raised in the country consider Kenya their country, and opt to stay put to establish their lives from here.

According to UNHCR, there are over 22.5 million refugees and 10 million stateless people in the world. South Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan contribute 55 per cent of the world’s total refugee population.

KENYA

Somali refugees in Kenya between rock and hard place

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NAIROBI, Kenya- Around half-a-million refugees stranded in Kenya face an impossible choice: either go home to al-Shabaab-wrecked Somalia under a controversial UNHCR “voluntary repatriation” program or stay and face massive debts accumulated due to food shortages at camps.

The dire situation can be witnessed firsthand at the Dadaab Refugee Complex in North Eastern province where over 486,460 refugees have taken asylum, according to figures released in January by The UN Refugee Agency.

Somalis living at the complex, which hosts thousands of makeshift refugee shelters, told Anadolu Agency the only reason they came to Kenya was because they were forced to flee the civil war back home and the threat of al-Shabaab militants who have killed many in the Horn of Africa region.

Dadaab is located 474 kilometers (294 miles) from capital Nairobi. It is an arid place with no paved roads but just swathes and swathes of barren fuscous-golden brown sand. Usually there is no sign of life en route to the camp except for lizards skittering across the sand. But sometimes people appear out of nowhere who can be seen herding camels. They are locals of the area who are mostly nomadic pastoralists and are always on the move.

As soon as one reaches the refugee complex, the picture of neglect and misery hits in the face as harshly as the scorching heat under which the extremely poor people live there.

Anyone who approaches the K1 block at the camp gets overwhelmed with requests from refugees scrambling over a barbed wire fence, urging for food, water, money or anything that one could spare for them.

Men, women and children can be seen squeezing into any spot that provides them with shade, others stare aimlessly into the distance deep in thought.

Tales of horror are in abundance here. One man said he arrived at the camp after spending three weeks in hiding after his family was killed in Somalia. Many others shared similar graphic realities.

Debts after food cuts

Several people at the camp told Anadolu Agency that after 30 percent food cuts were announced by the World Food Programme (WFP) for refugees living in Dadaab, they were forced to take loans to buy food and ended up accumulating “huge” debts of hundreds of dollars.

Many said it was because of these debts that they were now considering the recently-announced United Nations “Voluntary” repatriation program, which claims “to ensure the exercise of a free and informed choice and to mobilize support for returnees.”

Yassir Zahi said there is nothing voluntary about going back home and added he simply wants to run away from debt like many other refugees like himself at the camp.

“When the food cuts came, we were forced to accumulate debt since October 2017 because even the food was not enough for one person.

“Nothing is voluntary about me going home; I borrowed to buy food on credit and I am not alone; many have done the same, I owe the guy $300.

“All this I did to buy flour for porridge and milk and rice to feed my family; I used to sell flour but I ended up consuming it all with my family; they [money-lenders] came to ask for their money which I didn’t have and they threatened me and my family, especially my 16-year[-old] daughter,” Zahi said.

Through the voluntary repatriation program, the UN has created an avenue for people to clear off their debts “by returning back to my war-torn country,” he added.

In a 2018 report, Not Time to Go Home, Amnesty International also outlined how refugees were being coerced to go back to war at home due to the severe humanitarian crisis.

People left behind

Aamiina Osman, a 75-year-old woman, was found chained to a tree at the camp, attacking anyone who tried to come near her with a handful of sand.

Her adopted grandson Rashid Latif said she used to be happy and jovial but the terrible conditions at the refugee camp had destroyed the old woman.

“Her real family deserted her and went back to Somalia leaving her to fend for herself; they said that because she is too old she would slow them down once they got to war-torn Somalia; being deserted by the six family members made her partially mentally ill,” Latif said.

“On that night [they left], they chained four old women here [to the tree] and their families left; luckily, we found them, otherwise, they would have died; some went back to their homes but I adopted her [Osman] as my grandmother as I am an orphan and I take care of her,” he added.

Lack of funds

UNHCR’s Yvonne Ndege denied that refugees were being coerced to go back home. “The refugees are actually not ‘sent’ — they make a considered and informed decision to return or go to Somalia.

“There is a careful and detailed process that refugees who say they want to return follow before we help them return. That’s accompanied by up to date information from over 30 local organizations on the ground in Somalia constantly updating refugees on the situation back home. There are also what we call ‘go and see’ missions led by refugee leaders who go and see what’s going on in Somalia and come back with info for refugees considering return.”

She also told Anadolu Agency funding had not been adequate to help those wanting to return home.

“75,297 Somalis have voluntarily repatriated to Somalia since 2014, up to Dec 31, 2017; 35,407 returned in 2017 alone.

“There is a funding gap for the whole of Kenya. UNHCR support for refugees is only 32 percent funded, leaving a gap of 68 percent as of the 31st of December, 2017. We need $231.3M but only have $73.1M,” Ndege said.

Marco Lembo from the UNHCR said those who return get a “full package” in Somalia, which consists of conditional and non-conditional cash grants, including one-time payment of up to $1,000 per household and monthly grant of $200. He added that six months of food rations, supported by the WFP, are also given.

Somalia remains dangerous

Somali-based al-Shabaab militants continue to control cities in Somalia amid reports of them terrorizing women, men and children along the Horn of Africa region, which in turn causes massive displacement of people.

Guns have not been silenced in Somalia despite 25 years of conflict in the country. Experts repeatedly warn that going back to Somalia means returning to war and death.

But nonetheless, the Kenyan government has halted any new registration of Somali refugees and recently even disbanded its Department of Refugee Affairs, creating an invisible wall to hundreds of thousands who desperately seek asylum. Kenya had also urged the UNHCR to expedite the voluntary return of refugees after shelving a decision to close the camp due to insecurity.

At Dadaab, most refugees who spoke to Anadolu Agency said al-Shabaab had played a major role in their decision to seek asylum in Kenya to begin with, but now things are so bad at their refugee complex they feel they have no option but to take the hard road back home despite the dangers.

Summing up the sentiments of thousands of refugees like himself, Zahi concluded: “Life here is a hellish nightmare, I tell you”.

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KENYA

Suspected Al-Shabaab militants kill 3 in Kenyan school attack

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WAJIR, Kenya, Feb. 16 (Xinhua) — Suspected Al-Shabaab militants killed three Kenyan teachers and injured one other in an attack Friday on a school in the country’s northeastern county of Wajir, officials said.

The militants in early morning attacked the Qarsa primary school near the borders with Somalia and Ethiopia, in a town about 70 km from Wajir town, the capital of the county, killing three non-local teachers, said Mohamud Saleh, coordinator of Kenya’s northeastern region.

Authorities have been working to find another teacher who was allegedly shot in the hand and escaped with injuries.

Saleh said that ongoing efforts have been made to trace the killers, who escaped soon after the incident.

“This is (a) very unfortunate incident and the first of its kind in Wajir County,” he said, noting that the militants had planted improvised explosive devices (IED) along the route to the school.

Police said the militants seemed to have planted enough IED on roads leading to the school, making it extremely hard for ambulances and reinforcement teams to get to the site on time.

“One of our vehicles that was responding to the attack was partly hit by an IED … but all our officers are in good condition,” said Mohamed Sheikh, Wajir Administration Police commandant.

Local residents said tension and uncertainty remains high in the entire county.

Northeastern Kenya has suffered grenade and gun attacks in recent years since Kenya took its troops to Somalia to fight the Al-Shabaab militia group in October 2011.

Several attacks believed to have been carried out by Al-Shabaab have occurred in Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa and Dadaab districts of northeastern Kenya even as the military reports gains against the Islamist group by capturing their military bases and killing scores of them.

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Somalia given greenlight to respond in border case

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The International Court of Justice has allowed Somalia to file a response to a case in which it has sued Kenya over a maritime border.

The move kick-starts a fresh round of arguments, which could determine the final flow of the border.

The court Monday announced that Somalia should respond to Kenya’s claim that the current flow of the border should remain intact by June 18, after which Kenya will have another six months to poke holes in the response.

“The court issued this decision taking into account the views of the parties and the circumstances of the case. The subsequent procedure has been reserved for further decision,” said a statement from the court’s registry.

KENYA’S PLEA

On February 2 this year, presiding judge Ronny Abraham accepted Kenya’s plea to file a second round of arguments, which Nairobi said would take longer to prepare. This means the two countries will have another opportunity to argue before the court.
Somalia sued Kenya in August 2014, saying the border between the two countries should extend diagonally into the sea, south of Kiunga and not eastwards as it is today. But Kenya has argued that this may also affect its sea border with Tanzania. The current border has existed largely as a result of Presidential Proclamation of 1979.

When the case was presented to court last year in February, Kenya’s preliminary objections were dismissed. Kenya had argued that the court lacked jurisdiction and that the two countries had signed a memorandum of understanding to have the matter resolved through the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, something which Nairobi had claimed was not yet exhausted.

AREA IN CONTEST

The area in contest is about 100,000 square kilometres, forming a triangle east of the Kenyan coast

In 2009, Kenya and Somalia had reached an MoU and deposited it at the UN. It proclaimed that the sea border should run eastwards. But the case is also influenced by the suspected oil deposits in the contested area. Somalia had argued that Kenya was prospecting in the area, something that could expose Somali resources to exploitation should it win.

In December, Kenya filed an argument before the Court saying the matter can best be handled through the UNCLOS and insisted its continued exploration, fishing and other activity in the disputed area is based on a bilateral decree issued by the countries’ leaders in 1979.

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