According to UNHCR (the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), it is illegal to deny sanctuary to people fleeing their homeland in fear of their lives.
The refugees, mostly children, women, and the elderly, fled to Kenya to escape recent fighting between the al-Qaeda-linked rebel group al-Shabaab and Ahlu-Sunna Wal Jamaa forces, a Sunni militia group allied with the transitional Somali government in the Somali town of Bulla Hawa, in the northeastern part of Kenya.
In an interview with 56-year-old Jamal Aden Gure, one of the refugees who fled from Bulla Hawa, he indicated that "the fighting was increasing day by day in Bulla Hawa between Ahlu-Sunna and al-Shabaab. How can you live in a place where both warring sides are firing mortars?"
He added, "Everyone is targeting civilians so that they get sympathy from the resident. Al-Shabaab fired mortars to busy places. Then they accuse Ahlu-sunna for the attacks so that other people, mostly youth join the war against the Somali government."
Past weeks have seen an escalation in clashes between al-Shabaab and Somali troops near the town of Balad Hawa, with hundreds killed, mostly civilians, and dozens of others injured.
On November 4, a UN watchdog called on Kenya's government to urgently urge a halt to further returns and allow those in no-man's land to come back. "UNHCR appeals to the Kenyan authorities to immediately halt its returns of Somalis from the Border Point 1 camp at Mandera in northeast Kenya," UNHCR said. "Kenya has for many years been [a] generous host to many thousands of Somali refugees," the agency said. "To be forcibly returning people to Somalia now betrays that spirit, places lives at risk, and contravenes the principles of non-refoulement — or no forced return — that are contained in Kenya's Constitution, its Refugees Act and in international refugee law."
Under the 1969 African Union Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of the Refugee Problems in Africa, Kenya is obliged not to send refugees back to situations of generalized violence such as in Somalia.
International refugee law is a set of rules and procedures that aims to protect, first, persons seeking asylum from persecution and, second, those recognized as refugees under the relevant instruments. Its legal framework provides a distinct set of guarantees for these specific groups of persons, although, inevitably, this legal protection is unenforceable by the international community without sanctions or military intervention, both of which would likely hurt innocent civilians in the country being penalized.
The deportations violate the most fundamental principle of refugee law, the prohibition on refoulement — the forcible return to a place where a person faces a threat to life or freedom on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. Many of the female refugees face threats to freedom as well as life at home.
The New American interviewed Fatuma Sheikh Aden, 22 years old, one of the Somali refugees who fled from war-torn country Somalia, and she said of her reason for fleeing Somalia: "I fled from southern Somalia because of my safety. My father wanted to give [marry] me to an old man forcibly — who is also an elder of Somali Hard-lines, al-Shabaab."
Women and girls describe an utterly inadequate police response to sexual violence. Many women say that alleged attackers have successfully bribed the police to prevent investigations from taking place or to secure their release if arrested.
"I left insurgent territory two months ago with four of my friends. It is very hard to cross Kenya's border unless you have something in your pocket [to bribe border guards], and I was in no-man's land — Kenya-Somali border — for four days," said Fatuma who lives in Dadaab camp.
Even if refugees manage to enter Kenya, the new arrivals face huge challenges. Fatuma said about life in Dadaab camp, "Living in this camp, I have experienced several challenges ... lack of houses, not enough water, and many others, but the only thing I require is peace."
Most refugees head to one of Dadaab's three camps, the only places in Kenya where they are entitled to shelter and other forms of care. But even in the camps, they struggle to find aid.
It is almost impossible to get one's arms around the complexities of housing close to 290,000 refugees in Dadaab, in northeast Kenya. Dadaab is made up of three adjoining camps: Ifo, Hagadera, and Dagahaley. It is especially difficult when the three camps, which were originally meant to accommodate only 90,000 people, have been forced to shelter nearly 300,000. Somali refugees are streaming into Dadaab at the rate of 6,000 or more a month (400 alone registered the day we came), and there is literally no place for them to go. Dadaab is now the fourth largest "city" in Kenya. Dadaab, some 90km from the Kenya-Somalia border, has seen a large number of asylum-seekers fleeing years of conflict in Somalia. The camps have three times the number of people they were designed to support when the camps were established at the start of Somalia's conflict in 1991.
Kenya currently confines refugees to camps, barring them from movement, in contravention of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Nairobi, however, registered thousands as urban refugees.
Somalia already has 1.4 million internally displaced people, and about 575,000 have fled to neighboring countries. In 2009, Somalis were the third-largest group seeking asylum in industrialized countries, with more than 22,000 claims, after Iraq and Pakistan, according to figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
In 2008, a record yearly total of almost 60,000 Somalis sought refuge in three camps near the town of Dadaab, while possibly tens of thousands more traveled to Nairobi. New arrivals face police extortion, violence, and unlawful deportation when trying to cross Kenya's officially closed border and end up in appallingly crowded conditions in underserviced refugee camps.
Dadaab's crumbling two-decade-old water system provides 16 liters per person per day, four liters below minimum international aid standards, and many refugees have access to far less water than that, according to Oxfam in 2009. Understaffed clinics also face drug shortages when dealing with growing chronic health needs.
Kenya officially closed its 682-kilometer border with Somalia in January 2007, when Ethiopian troops intervened in support of Somalia's weak transitional government and ousted a coalition of Islamic courts from Mogadishu, Somalia's capital. During the past two years, an escalating armed conflict by Ethiopian and Somali government forces against an insurgency, resulting in numerous war crimes and human rights abuses, has forced almost one million residents of Mogadishu to flee, and provoked a growing influx of Somali refugees into Kenya.
The border closure has encouraged members of Kenya's police — long known for their abusive practices against Somalis — to increase the extent of their extortion of Somali asylum seekers trying to reach the camps. Security forces in the border areas allow intercepted asylum seekers to pay their way through checkpoints to reach the camps.
The border closure has forced tens of thousands of Somalis to use smuggling networks to cross into Kenya secretly. With the widespread threat of interception of refugees by abusive forces, most asylum seekers travel on small paths away from the main road between the border and the refugee camps, where common criminals (often described by asylum seekers as "men not wearing uniform") also prey upon them, raping women and stealing the little they have.
East Africa Country also tightened security along its border with Somalia in February in anticipation of a government offensive against al-Shabaab and other anti-government groups, which has yet to occur. There were fears that Somali fighters might enter Kenya if attacked at home. These fears are well-founded.
Hardline Islamists from Somalia are increasingly launching cross-border raids into Kenya's remote northeast despite a heightened state of alert there. On November 8, three gunmen from Somalia crossed the Kenyan border and killed a community organizer working with Somali refugees.
Hardliners also carried out the twin suicide bombings in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, killing 74, many as they watched the World Cup final. That was first suicide bombing inside the country.
Hussein Moulid is a Kenyan-born Somali freelance journalist, covering stories around East Africa and also the Horn of Africa countries, especially Somalia.
Photo of Somali refugees: AP Images