Kenya’s harsh new security laws put hundreds of thousands of refugees at risk

African securityKenya’s harsh new security laws put hundreds of thousands of refugees at risk

By Neil James Wilson

Published 31 December 2014

Kenya has passed a controversial amendment to the country’s existing security laws, days after heated debates led to brawling on the floor of the Kenyan Parliament. Despite the fracas, the bill was passed with only minor changes, to the dismay of observers at home and abroad. Domestic and international attention has mainly focused on the impact the bill would have on the period of detention without charge, the tapping of communications without court consent, the erosion of media freedom and the limitations placed upon the right to protest. But the world has paid less attention to the severe implications the new amendments have for refugees in Africa’s second-largest refugee-hosting country.

Kenya has passed a controversial amendment to the country’s existing security laws, days after heated debates led to brawling on the floor of the Kenyan Parliament. Despite the fracas, the bill was passed with only minor changes, to the dismay of observers at home and abroad.

Domestic and international attention has mainly focused on the impact the bill would have on the period of detention without charge, the tapping of communications without court consent, the erosion of media freedom and the limitations placed upon the right to protest. But the world has paid less attention to the severe implications the new amendments have for refugees in Africa’s second-largest refugee-hosting country.

For Kenya’s half a million refugees, many of whom have escaped diabolical threats across the Somali border, this is very bad news indeed.

Round them up
The Security Laws (Amendment) Act 2014 changes Kenya’s 2006 Refugee Act in two vital ways: it seeks to limit the number of refugees and asylum seekers in the country to 150,000, and it further enforces an encampment policy, limiting refugees to the country’s two sprawling, remote camps in Dadaab and Kakuma.

The United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that over the next year the current number of 500,000 refugees in Kenya is will rise. With continuing conflict in Somalia and South Sudan, placing strict limits on the number of people who can access state protection will endanger lives.

A strict encampment policy also bucks a recent trend of moving away from refugee camps as a means of addressing refugee situations. In July 2014 UNHCR released a new policy that embraced alternatives to camps, with the aim of helping refugees “exercise rights and freedoms, make meaningful choices regarding their lives and have the possibility to live greater dignity, independence and normality as members of communities.”

This follows previous moves by UNHCR, such as its 2009 Urban Policy, to get away from what the UN’s high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, called the “outmoded image that most refugees live in sprawling camps of UNHCR tents”.

Of course, having hundreds of thousands of refugees still confined to camps is good for neither Kenya nor the refugees themselves. It is important to move beyond the myths that refugees are dependent on humanitarian assistance and a burden to their hosts.

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