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As Kenya Immigration Deadline Looms, Asylum-Seekers Swamp UNHCR Office

Somali refugees in Kenya
In Kenya, thousands of people from Horn of Africa countries and the Great Lakes region are scrambling to register with the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR. They are hoping to be registered before an end of the month deadline set by the Kenyan government, after which anyone who does not have immigration documents could face deportation.

UNHCR Spokesman Emmanuel Nyabera tells VOA his agency is issuing temporary documents to asylum-seekers in Kenya, so that they will not be deported after the June 30 deadline.

Mr. Nyabera says the agency will then hold interviews to determine if asylum-seekers applying for refugee status in the East African country fit the definition and criteria of a refugee.

"What is complicating this process is that we also have people here who have been living in this country for more than even 10 years, but, all this time, [they] have not even tried to seek asylum," said Emmanuel Nyabera. "But, now, because of this new directive, they have decided to come here. So, it is a mix [of people]."

The Kenyan government directive, announced earlier in the year, requires all foreigners in Kenya to have proper documents by the end of the month or face deportation.

Mr. Nyabera says more than 7,000 people, mostly from Ethiopia, Somalia and the Great Lakes Region, have this week alone visited the UNHCR office in Nairobi to apply to register.

He says, once interviews have been carried out and applicants are found to fit the refugee definition, they will be taken to one of two refugee camps in remote locations, as per Kenyan law.

Government spokesman Alfred Mutua says the immigration policy was enacted primarily as a security measure that keeps track of foreigners in the country and why they are there.

In the past, government officials have blamed rising crime rates in the capital and beyond on what they said was a high number of illegal immigrants living in Kenya.

Mr. Mutua says the policy is also meant to protect the rights of what he called genuine refugees, and to ensure that they get access to certain services.

"Because we have a lot of refugees in town, we are trying to make sure that the refugees are given the status they require, so that, now, when we are trying to catch illegal immigrants, we do not harass the refugees, who are here legally," said Alfred Mutua.

According to UNHCR figures, Kenya hosts about 240,000 refugees, most of whom come from Somalia and Sudan.