The endorsement of the Global Compact on Refugees at the UN General Assembly on December 17 will not improve the lives of refugees in Kenya unless the government turns rhetoric into action on their rights.
It is more than 50 years since Kenya ratified the UN Convention on Refugees. However, the authorities have violated many of these principles — including non-refoulement, which prohibits returning individuals to places where they would be at real risk of human rights violations.
In 2016, Kenya arrested and deported a registered South Sudanese refugee, James Gatdet, spokesperson for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO), despite warnings that his life would be in danger there. He was arrested on arrival in Juba and sentenced to death by hanging — only to be saved by international pressure.
Kenya also ratified the African Union Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa in 1993.
As a result, thousands of Somalis fleeing war and famine have found refuge in Kenya. But they are disproportionately targeted in counter-terror operations and face arbitrary arrest, harassment, extortion, ill-treatment, forcible relocation in Kenya and even deportation.
The Refugee Act 2006, which provides guidelines for the management of refugees, has been implemented in a piecemeal, halting fashion.
Local refugee camps were only formally recognised by the government in 2014 and the members of the Refugee Appeal Board, responsible for hearing and deciding appeals on refugee status, appointed in 2015.
The Refugee Advisory Committee, tasked with advising and assisting the commissioner of refugees on recognition of refugees, is yet to be constituted.
The government also makes knee-jerk amendments to the domestic refugee law. In 2014, it set a ceiling of 150,000 for Somali refugees in the country despite hosting more than 550,000 registered individuals.
In 2016, it disbanded the Department of Refugee Affairs and directed that all Somali refugees be repatriated and the Dadaab refugee camp closed.
Thankfully, in February last year, the High Court overturned both decisions. A month later, Kenya committed to continue providing asylum to Somali refugees by signing the ‘Nairobi Declaration’ on durable solutions for Somali refugees. However, Kenya has stubbornly refused to register incoming Somali refugees, estimated at more than 12,000 at Dadaab.
An unprecedented 25.4 million refugees had been recorded by last December. According to the UNHCR, 85 percent are hosted by developing countries.
The compact follows the 2016 Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), which called for an end to confining people in camps and integrating them into society. Both aim to bring in refugees from the fringes of society and improve conditions in their countries of origin.
Kenya must now anchor all its international refugee commitments in policy and see hosting refugees as an opportunity and not a burden.
Mr Nyamori is Amnesty International’s refugee coordinator for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes. @nyamoriv