Fighting Global Terrorism and its Effects on Refugee Protection, The Case of Somali Refugees in Kenya and Uganda

Fighting Global Terrorism and its Effects on Refugee  Protection, The Case of Somali Refugees in Kenya and Uganda

On July 11th 2010 two suicide bombings were carried out against crowds watching a screening of 2010 FIFA World Cup Final match at two locations in Kampala. The attacks left 74 dead and 70 injured. Al-Shabaab, a Sunni Islamist Somali militia believed to have ties to Al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attacks as retaliation for Ugandan support for AMISOM. This was al-Shabaab’s first attack outside of Somalia.

On 21 September 2013, unidentified gunmen attacked the upmarket Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The attack, which lasted until 24 September, resulted in at least 67 deaths, including four attackers. Over 175 people were reportedly wounded in the mass shooting, with all the gunmen reported killed.The Islamist group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the incident, which it characterized as retribution for the Kenyan military’s deployment in Somalia. Many media outlets also suspected the insurgent group’s involvement in the attack based on earlier reprisal warnings it had issued in the wake of Operation Linda Nchi from 2011 to 2012. Since then a few more deadly terrorists attacks attributed to the terror group have taken place in Kenya.

Although the two attacks took place in two different countries at two different times, they have several similarities. They were both enacted as retribution for Kenyan and Ugandan military deployments in Somalia. Also, the two attacks have had ramifications for Somali refugees in both Kenya and Uganda. The aftermath of these and other Al Shabaab-linked attacks, especially on Kenya since the Westgate attacks, have seen serious erosion of the refugee protection regime in Kenya – mostly for Somalis.


Tens of thousands of refugees from Somalia and elsewhere live in urban centers throughout Kenya and Uganda, where they are able to provide for themselves, send their children to local schools, and access health facilities. Over the years, Nairobi’s Eastleigh  and Kampala’s Kisenyi have developed into some of the most dynamic parts of their cities’ economies, with shoppers going there from all over the city to take advantage of the competitive prices and range of goods available.

In March, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Interior ordered, on the grounds of ‘emerging security challenges in our urban centers,’ all refugees to report to the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. This coincided with the launch of a security operation known as Operation Usalama Watch (also officially known as “Operation Sanitization of Eastleigh”), designed to flush out members of Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based terrorist group that has claimed credit for attacks in Kenya. The underlying (or maybe overlying!) message from the government: refugees equal terrorists.

Abuse and extortion of Somali refugees by Kenyan police is not new. In fact, police have long referred to Somalis as ‘ATMs’. But if the government’s intention with this recent crackdown on Somali refugees was to enforce its new refugee encampment policy, or to take action against terrorist elements that is not what is unfolding. Rather, the directive and Operation Usalama Watch gave police greater leverage to demand higher and higher bribes from refugees who were previously told they could lawfully live in Nairobi.

The broader issue of whether refugees in Kenya and Uganda should be afforded greater freedom of movement  – and not be confined to camps and settlements – is a contentious one. Kenya’s High Court has released contradictory judgments on the issue, and the Kenyan Parliament is soon expected to take up a revision of the Refugee Act of 2006, which may alter Kenyan law to make encampment policy more stringent. Rather than publicly defending the rights of urban refugees, UNHCR, which launched an Urban Refugee Policy in 2009, has chosen to pursue an approach of private diplomacy with Kenyan officials. Whether that strategy is proving effective is debatable: especially since, in addition to the myriad rights abuses, several certified refugees have even been involuntarily sent back to Mogadishu, a breach of the most fundamental of refugee rights. But what cannot be debated is the pervasive abuse of refugees by Kenyan police during and before this operation.

My interaction with a Somali civil activist working with the Somali Initiative for Peace and Development (SIPED) after the Kampala bombing opened my eyes to the Somali community’s relationship with Al Shabaab. He informed me that majority of Somali refugees both in Kenya and Uganda have been rendered refugees by the actions of the al Shabaab. This is a very critical point for both governments to realize: these refugees are victims of al Shabaab violence – it is why they are refugees in the first place!

Why Did the two Countries React Differently to these attacks?

Initially after the Kampala 2010 attacks there were some tensions between Ugandans and Somali refugees in Kampala, though this soon simmered down. The Inspector General of Police and other local leadership came out defending the Somali community against any accusation, covert or overt, of being terrorist-supporters. This itself went a long way to diffuse tensions. Conversely, the Kenyan authorities have not done anything even remotely similar.

Uganda, unlike Kenya, has a long history of hosting big refugee influxes. The first influx of refugees to Uganda was Rwanda refugees in 1959, while the first big influx of refugees into Kenya was the Somali, Sudanese and Ethiopian refugees in early 1990s. Therefore, the Uganda government has a long history of hosting refugees and understanding their dynamics, including on protection and assistance aspects.

The two countries have different refugee legal regimes. The Kenyan refugee policy focuses on camps, while the Ugandan one centers on settlement. The camp policy involves concentrating refugees in a camp, with no or minimal interaction with the host community. UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies provide these types of refugees with their basic human needs. The Ugandan settlement policy is an almost open policy whereby refugees freely mix with the host community. The Ugandan government provides refugees in the settlement program with small plots of land to supplement the food they receive from the WFP. Services provided to refugees such as health and education are also accessible to the host community, and vice versa. This is to minimize duplication of provision of parallel vital services. This policy promotes a lot of interaction and mutual co-existence between refugees and Ugandans. As a result of this Ugandan government officials, policy makers, and the general public have a fair understanding of refugee-related issues and their plight. On the other hand the Kenyan camp policies inhibit interaction with refugees for the majority of government officials, policy makers and the general population. This fosters misinformation and misunderstanding of the character and plight of refugee communities.

The political history of the two countries has, to a big extent, contributed to the way they treat refugees and the way they have reacted to the terror threat. Uganda has a long history of conflicts and instability, while Kenya has been relatively peaceful. Ugandans have witnessed mass displacement of their population both internally and exerternally. A big chunk of Uganda’s political establishment, including president Museveni himself, influential policy makers and the general public, has a history of displacement. President Museveni was a refugee in Tanzania in the 1970s. This makes him and his government more sympathetic to the plight of refugees. This is the opposite of Kenya, where the political class and policy makers have never been displaced – and it may, to some extent, have contributed to the poor way the Kenya government officials and policy makers treat refugees.

In sum, the increased threat from international terrorism has also had its effects on the international protection regime of refugees. In the aftermath of September 11, many governments all over the world enacted “anti-terrorism” legislation which aversely affected refugees and asylum seekers. There was a widening perception, often fuelled by politicians and the media, of refugees and asylum seekers as automatic terror suspects. Regardless of the fact that refugees are themselves victims of insecurity, they are often seen as a threat to security in the first place.

Many NGOs and civil-rights groups have expressed concern that bona fide asylum seekers may be victimised as a result of public prejudice and unduly restrictive legislative or administrative measures. There are concerns that refugee protection standards may be further eroded in the name of “anti-terrorism” – although the refugees themselves are often escaping violence, including terrorism. To what extent do govenments use the threat of terrorism as a pretext to  tighten measures on asylum seekers and refugees?

They must remember that refugees are victims of injustice, not fugitives from justice. ■

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