In recent years, Kenya has struggled to secure its borders against terrorist threats from neighboring Somalia. As refugees from the war-torn state continue to pour in, Human Rights Watch has raised concerns over abuse committed by Kenyan authorities in the name of national security.
Somali refugees have become an increasing problem for Kenya over the past few years. Somalia has been in a near constant state of conflict for almost two decades and as control of the Horn of African nation slips further from the grasp of the United Nations-backed government, refugees have fled for Kenya's more stable borders.
New York-based Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 320,000 registered Somali refugees now live in Kenya. More than 40,000 of them arrived in the early months of 2010 alone.
Kenyan authorities have been relatively receptive to the influx. But the rights organization has raised concerns in recent years about abuse being endured by refugees at the hands of police in the region.
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch published a report entitled Welcome to Kenya, which details the widespread abuse of Somali asylum seekers.
According to the report, asylum seeker are regularly subjected to physical violence, including rape and police extortion en route to the refugee camps around Dadaab, a town approximately 100 kilometers from the border.
Kenyan law allows refugees 30 days to register for asylum regardless of the legality of their entry. But the report lists incidents of refugees being subjected to charges of "unlawful presence in Kenya" and being forced to pay fines. If they do not pay, the refugees risk deportation to Somalia, in violation of international law.
The report also says threats of extortion have driven asylum seekers off the established routes to Dadaab, exposing them to further danger from local criminals.
Part of the problem, according to Human Rights Watch, was the official closure of the border in January of 2007. Prior to the closure, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees operated a refugee transit facility in Liboi, just 15 kilometers from the border. It provided screening and safe passage for asylum seeker to the camps around Dadaab.
After the border closed, the Liboi center was removed and police turned away refugees. Human Rights Watch published a report in 2009 calling on Kenyan authorities to reopen the border and allow the center to continue its work.
Police officials have downplayed the findings of the report but revealed that a committee made up of officials, religious and civil society leaders from North Eastern Province has been established to investigate the abuse.
Kenyan police deputy spokesperson Charles Owino highlighted the country's high level of refugee support compared to other countries in the region, and he said that while Kenya would not discriminate against Somalis, security is a major concern along the northeastern borders.
"We are not supposed to associate a particular ethnic group with terrorism. It is not appropriate and it is not in order. But generally, we know that there is general fear of some of these cases. Our country has been very unfortunate. We had a serious bombing in this country, and therefore we cannot compromise matters of security. Any person is capable of undertaking terrorism activities, and therefore we are not targeting a particular group," Owino said. "Let us understand that this beautiful country of Kenya has been of great support to our neighbors in Somalia compared to Ethiopia, Djibouti or Eritrea."
Terrorism is a constant threat along Kenya's border with Somalia. The east African nation has suffered a serious of attacks, most recently in May, by al-Shabaab, an Islamist militant group attempting to overthrow the Somali government.
A researcher for Human Rights Watch's refugee program, Gerry Simpson, acknowledged Kenya's contributions to Somali refugees as well as the threats Kenya faces. But, he added, those issues do not justify abuse.
"We know that Kenya has been generous toward Somali refugees for two decades. There are now 320,000 registered Somalis in Kenya and we know that is a burden on Kenya. However, that burden in no way excuses the kind of abuses that we have been documenting. We are concerned that evidence we have heard from refugees about police calling them terrorists is a reflection of a general political discourse that has demonized Somalis increasingly and that that has encouraged police in the border areas to engage in these abuses ostensibly in the name of protecting national security," Simpson said.
In addition to the Kenyan police, the report strongly condemns the UNHCR for its failure to identify and report the abuse occurring in the camps. Human Rights Watch has called on the international agency to drastically improve its monitoring of the situation in order to protect the Somali refugees.