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Human Rights Report Claims Refugees are Tortured - 2002-11-21

A human rights group says refugees in Kenya and Uganda are victims of beatings, sexual violence, and arbitrary arrest. A report by Human Rights Watch blames the U.N. refugee agency and the governments of Kenya and Uganda for failing to protect the refugees.

Hidden in Plain View is the name of the Human Rights Watch report. It says more than 100,000 refugees are living in Nairobi and Kampala, the capitals of Kenya and Uganda.

According to the report, some of the abuses, which range from harassment to torture and murder, are carried out by people who followed the refugees from their countries of origin. But it says local authorities are also to blame. Alison Parker, the author of the report, says refugees in Nairobi are regularly abused by police.

"Refugees pay bribes more frequently. They spend more time in jail," she said. "They more frequently fall prey to sexual abuse at the hands of Kenyan police. Women are raped in prison. And children are jailed with their mothers."

Many Kenyans complain of police harassment, not just refugees. But refugees are more vulnerable because they do not have identity cards to prove that they have a right to be in the country.

A spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, Emmanuel Nyabera, says the agency is in the process of producing special identity cards for refugees, which, the agency hopes, will lessen their problems with the police.

Kenya's police spokesman was not available for comment on the report.

Ms. Parker also accuses the U.N. refugee agency of neglecting people it is supposed to be protecting.

"One young woman that I interviewed had been transferred by the UNHCR itself because she had contracted tuberculosis in the refugee camps," she said. "UNHCR did not house her. She slept on the street outside of UNHCR's offices. And she was gang-raped one night. This kind of abuse cannot be tolerated and must be stopped by UNHCR itself."

Refugee agency spokesman Nyabera says the agency does try to provide accommodation for refugees who have been brought to Nairobi for medical treatment. He says one of the biggest problems is that many urban refugees living in Nairobi are not supposed to be there.

Kenyan government policy is for refugees to live in one of two designated camps located near Kenya's borders with Sudan and Somalia. The government says the refugees are only supposed to come to Nairobi under exceptional circumstances: if they are waiting for their refugee status to be determined, if they are sick or studying, or if they are awaiting resettlement.

But refugees complain that the border camps are not safe. Many prefer to fend for themselves in the capital, rather than waste away in dusty camps living off food rations.