Thursday, June 19, 2014

Families torn apart in the name of security

It was business as usual in Eastleigh, Nairobi, on April 22, 2014 even as security agents continued the  search for people living in the country illegally. PHOTO | PHOEBE OKALL

An Eastleigh street in April, 2014. PHOTO | PHOEBE OKALL  NATION MEDIA GROUP

By Muthoni Wanyeki
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Last month, 18-year-old Ayaan suddenly found herself at the head of her household. Her mother and father had been arrested in Nairobi as part of the counter-terrorism operation dubbed ‘Usalama Watch’.

They were detained in Kasarani stadium before being forcibly relocated to Kakuma refugee camp over 800 kilometres away, leaving Ayaan alone to look after her seven brothers and sisters — all under the age of 10.

“It is only me looking after the children” she says. “My parents were both working, but now we have very little. The children are out of school. I want my parents to come back.”

Ayaan’s experience is far from unique for refugees in Kenya today. During the course of operation Usalama Watch, more than 300 children have been separated from their families.

Even breastfeeding mothers have been separated from their babies and forcibly sent to refugee camps, leaving infants, some as young as one month old, behind.

Since the operation began, many refugee children have stopped attending school, either through fear or circumstance. As a result, hardworking students are desperately worried about dropping behind whilst others find that they can no longer sit the exams for which they had been preparing.

The Somali community in Kenya has been disproportionately targeted by the security operations. Thousands have been subjected to arbitrary arrest, harassment, extortion and ill-treatment since Usalama Watch began in early April.

CONTRIBUTION UNDER ATTACK

At least 2,500 people have been forcibly relocated to overcrowded, insecure refugee camps and hundreds of others have been expelled to Somalia, despite the deteriorating security situation in that country.

Amnesty International is not aware of any Somali arrested during the operation who has been charged with terrorism-related offences, let alone convicted. Somalis are being treated as scapegoats.

Despite their marginalisation, many Somalis have played an important part in Kenya’s economic and cultural life, running businesses and boosting the economy. This contribution is now under attack.

No one denies that Kenya faces legitimate security concerns. But victimising an entire community is not the way to deal with insecurity, and will only breed hostility.

Meanwhile families continue to be torn apart and livelihoods lost. Children are being separated from their parents and are missing out on their education. All the while, attacks keep happening

The World Refugee Day gives us the opportunity to reflect on the suffering of people forced to leave their countries in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

As one Kenyan man said, “It is not my wife’s fault she had to flee for her life, and become a refugee. It is not my daughter’s fault for being born in this world by a refugee parent. She has had to suffer for being who she doesn’t even know she is. A refugee’s child.”
This year, as these stories demonstrate, it is not a day on which we can be proud.

Ms Wanyeki is Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa.