Refugees are victims of violence too, so they need our protection, not rejection

Monday April 13 2015

A view of the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. The United Nations warned Kenyan authorities on April 14, 2015 that closing the world's biggest refugee camp complex would have

A view of the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. The United Nations warned Kenyan authorities on April 14, 2015 that closing the world's biggest refugee camp complex would have "extreme humanitarian and practical consequences" and would violate international law. FILE PHOTO |  AFP

Following the attack on Garissa University College last week, a number of Kenyan political leaders are demanding the closure of Dadaab refugee camp.

They want the close to half-a-million refugees living there returned to Somalia.

It is not the first time that many Kenyans have associated terrorism and terrorist attacks to the presence of refugees, especially the Somali. There was a concerted effort by politicians to link the Westgate attack to refugees and have them repatriated.

There are many reasons the call for expulsion of refugees is not a good idea or even the appropriate response to terrorism.

Key among them is that it is against the law, both local and international.

The cornerstone of refugee protection is the principle of non-refoulement, a legal term which means that people who have fled persecution cannot be returned to a place where they will face ill-treatment.

This principle is so fundamental that it is universally accepted as customary international law, meaning that even countries that have not signed the requisite international treaties are bound by the principle.

Kenya, of course, has signed the major refugee protection treaties and gone ahead to include this principle in Kenyan law — the Refugees Act of 2006.

Our courts have clearly spelt out the legal parameters for refugee protection in Kenya under the Constitution.

Returning hundreds of thousands of duly recognised refugees in Kenya to Somalia is, therefore, not something we can do without violating the law.

APPLY THE LAW

Secondly, the logic and reasoning behind the call does not stand up to factual scrutiny.

The leaders claim that they have information that refugee camps are training grounds for terrorists.

The first question that comes to mind is, if the government has information and evidence that there are terrorist training activities going on in the camps, what would prevent it from going in, arresting those behind the training activities, and applying the law to them?

The camps are managed and secured by the Kenyan government in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian agencies.

The government of Kenya, being the host, has full access to the camps, day and night.

Asylum, by its very nature, is granted on the basis that the beneficiaries must respect and abide by the laws of the host country and that those who break the law are not immune to prosecution.

So, if indeed the government has this information, the right response is not to ask for closure of the camps but rather, to arrest and prosecute those who are involved.

VICTIMS OF TERRORISM

The other erroneous assumption behind this call is that refugees are terrorists, bad people out to harm this country. Again, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Most of the refugee community is made up of women and children, who themselves have been victims of terrorism and other related criminal activities.

Most of them have gone through horrendous experiences of human rights violations and continue to face harsh living conditions.

For many of them, life is a daily struggle for their dignity. While there may be elements that may be recruited into violent extremism, and while most of the suspects in the terrorist attacks have been Muslim and Somali, it does not mean that the whole refugee community should be punished.

This would be tantamount to suggesting that because the mastermind of an attack is from a certain ethnic, religious, professional, or social community, all members of that community are connected to terrorism.

The right response to terrorist attacks cannot be to expose these victims of human rights violations to further abuse; we can do better as a country. There are better, more effective, and morally right ways for us to respond to these criminal acts by a few rather than condemning whole communities.

We should, for instance, build alliances with those in the refugee community who are willing to share information on criminal activities in the camps and use the intelligence to isolate criminal elements, while at the same time protecting the innocent, law-abiding vulnerable refugees.

Mr Kiunga is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and works for UNHCR. The views expressed here are his own. [email protected]