Somali Refugees and the Future of Human Rights

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Lucy Lowe fills our Fourth Day of Analysis with a blog for our ‘Politics of  (im)Mobility Series’. She explores the position of Somali refugees in Kenya, and argues that we need to return to the spirit of the refugee regime erected at the end of World War II, which was intended to protect rather than undermine the safety and dignity of those forced to flee persecution in their home states. Lucy is a Teaching Fellow in Medical Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and a Deputy Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Medical Anthropology. 

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering.

Wainaina (2005)

This excerpt from Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical advice on ‘How to Write about Africa’ exemplifies the classic image of a ‘refugee’. The helpless victim, an ahistorical, docile casualty of foreign misfortune, is omnipresent in the media and in humanitarian discourse, and is an unrelenting image conjured by the word ‘Somalia’, along with her more menacing siblings, the ‘pirates’ and the ‘terrorists’. This victim is in stark contrast to the images we’ve seen of refugees, or as they’re often portrayed, ‘swarms of migrants’ that have been a mainstay in European news for several months. Refugees, it would seem, can exist somewhere out there, in a far off camp, but are less deserving of our pity and donations, should they dare to approach our own borders. Yet such simplifications of poor refugees or sneaky migrants obscure the lived experiences of those who may in one sense or another be defined as refugees.

In 2011, watching conflicts and revolutions unfold across the Middle East on television in the Eastleigh estate in Nairobi, the excitement of genuine political transformation was lost on a population that had been without a functioning government for twenty years. ‘They’re making a mistake’ said one Somali man in his fifties as we watched the protests in Egypt. ‘Watch Libya, it will look like Somalia soon’ remarked another, as he followed the news in dismay. ‘The people think this will benefit them, but the people never benefit. They will be killed, they will become refugees, someone else will take power, and they will still suffer…’ he tailed off, visibly shaken by the topic of discussion.

The residents of Eastleigh are all too familiar with the outcome of protracted conflicts. Originating from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, many have lived in Kenya for over twenty years. Like the vast majority of refugees in the world, the residents of Eastleigh have remained within their geographic regions of origin. Kenya has long been a refugee hosting country, and is currently the seventh major host, following Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Islamic Republic of Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan. After hosting Ugandan refugees in the 1980s, Kenya’s refugee population grew rapidly throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s as an outcome of conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, DRC, and Rwanda. In response to unprecedented numbers of people seeking refuge, Kenya introduced an encampment policy that required all refugees to register and reside within one of two refugee camps, Kakuma in the Northwest or Dadaab in the east.

Dadaab, a complex of five closely located camps, has the unfortunate reputation of being the oldest, largest, and until recently, most congested refugee camp in the world. With a population that has fluctuated in recent years between 350,000 and 450,000, it has been described as Kenya’s third largest city. Periodic peaks of instability in Somalia have sent waves of refugees back and forth across the poker-straight border with Kenya. The camps have notoriously harsh and overcrowded living conditions, and with limited options for their livelihoods and futures, many people have left, or have circumvented them altogether, and live in other parts of the country.

This protracted ‘emergency’ has resulted in hundreds of thousands of people being indefinitely warehoused in camps or living in constant fear and legal ambiguity elsewhere. The idea that emergencies are inherently temporary has been used to justify enormous populations having their rights suspended, including the right to work and to have freedom of movement. Citizenship – and the access to such rights – is almost impossible to legally obtain for refugees, and their children, and now grandchildren who have been born and registered in Kenya as refugees. Despite this, many Somalis have been able to invest in and develop business and employment opportunities, both inside the camps and beyond, most notoriously in Eastleigh.

Eastleigh, or ‘Little Mogadishu’ as its often known, is renowned for both its immigrant and refugee population and its thriving commercial sector, which attracts shoppers and traders from all over East Africa. The visibility of economic prosperity in Eastleigh has contributed to the perception of Somalis as wealthy. This combined with their legally dubious presence has made them an easy and alluring target for police officials, seeking to supplement their wages with bribes. This amalgamation of poverty, wealth, and legal ambiguity has engendered a milieu that is the subject of both human rights investigations and Financial Times articles.

Police harassment, violence, and arbitrary detention are widespread in Eastleigh, and many people complained to me that Somalis are treated like ‘slaves’ or ‘animals’ who can be captured, bought, and sold; as one man phrased it, ‘they catch us just so they can sell us like goats to our own people.’ Locally made language translation books are a painful reminder of the ubiquity of police persecution. Rather than beginning with basic greetings, introductions, and requests for directions to the nearest train station is, the books I saw for sale in Eastleigh started out with more locally pertinent phrases such as ‘police’, ‘show your ID’, ‘you are under arrest’, and the ever useful ‘kitu kidogo’ (‘something small’ – a bribe).

This perpetual violence, as well as a widespread public mistrust of and hostility towards Somalis, has reinforced the uncertainty of life for many refugees in Kenya. Consequently, many are desperate to continue their journey to another country. The means through which they can reach safety, however, are extremely limited – official resettlement, family reunification, or the treacherous and sometimes-fatal methods employed to illicitly cross national borders. The increasingly restrictive asylum and migration policies found in Europe and elsewhere have produced a system in which it is essentially impossible to seek safety in another country without breaking any laws. It is this same protectionist, exclusory system that results in the warehousing of refugees in camps and detention centres, preventing them from seeking safety on their own terms. It is this system that has led to a proliferation of people smugglers, journeys across the Mediterranean in unsafe vessels, and bodies washed up on beaches. It is this system that has made mobility an exclusive privilege of the wealthy.

The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees was a remarkable international response to cruelties inflicted on mass populations. The Convention sought to legally protect those fleeing persecution, and moved responsibility for human safety beyond the limits of individual states. In the six decades since the convention was signed, we have drifted far from the original compulsion and compassion to help those who need it most. A system that restricts migration and holds the security of territory over and above that of people is inherently in opposition to the principles enshrined in the right to seek asylum.

Tony Benn suggested that ‘the way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought that they could get away with it’. With over 86 per cent of the 19.5 million refugees in the world hosted by developing countries, it is easy for most people in the Global North to turn a blind eye to the violence and persecution many of them continue to endure. It is only when they are rendered glaringly visible, like the thousands of Syrians arriving in Europe, that we are forced to witness the brutality of our own borders. It is almost 25 years since Mohamed Siad Barre’s government was overthrown, yet Somalia still remains in the top three refugee-producing countries in the world. Multiple generations of Somali ‘refugees’ have been born in Kenya, but contained in camps or in legal limbo in Eastleigh, they have become largely invisible. If we are to avoid increasingly large populations trapped in camps, or living in deeply precarious settings, we must reassess our current asylum and migration systems. If the right to asylum is no longer recognized, and if there are no safe passages to seek refuge, the rising number of bodies washed up on our beaches will mark an end to human rights for any of us.

One thought on “Somali Refugees and the Future of Human Rights

  1. “The increasingly restrictive asylum and migration policies found in Europe and elsewhere have produced a system in which it is essentially impossible to seek safety in another country without breaking any laws.”

    The author seems to draw a direct line between European laws and the treatment of Somalis in Kenya. What about the role of the Kenyan state?

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