Mass Exodus of Somalis From Eastleigh Could Adversely Impact Kenya’s Economy

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Kenyan Somalis and refugees who live or work in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood sardonically refer to themselves as “human ATM machines for the Kenyan police,” in reference to the persistent demands for bribes from police officers patrolling the area.

Eastleigh residents claim that in recent months, after a wave of grenade attacks in the area, and the subsequent Kenyan government directive that all urban refugees should be repatriated to refugee camps, the demands for bribes by the police have reached epidemic proportions.

Police officers are apparently taking advantage of the government directive to physically harass residents and to demand higher bribes. Police have also been accused of extorting money from refugees and ethnic Somalis by threatening to charge them with being members of al-Shabaab terrorist group.

Increasing xenophobia among Kenyans, based on the perception that Somalis are taking over the economy, has also heightened tensions between Somali refugees and Kenyans.

Reports indicate that the fear of persecution and physical harassment and bribe-taking by police have forced thousands of refugees to flee Nairobi. The refugees are not moving back to refugee camps based in remote, semi-arid parts of the country, but are heading back to Somalia.

A recent report by the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS) think tank states that some 20,000 Somali refugees have voluntarily left Kenya since the repatriation call was made by Kenya’s Commissioner of the Department of Refugee Affairs last December. As a result, schools in Eastleigh are reporting reduced student numbers.

A glut of empty apartments left behind by fleeing residents has also dramatically reduced rents in the area.  There are currently 33,537 Somali refugees registered in Nairobi, according to the report.

“The unintended consequence of Kenyan police brutality is the deepening mistrust between them and Somali refugees,” the report said.

A majority of refugees interviewed by the think tank said that they would not cooperate with the police to identify terrorist suspects because they feared that the police would ask for “ransom” money.

While harassment is no doubt a contributing factor, it is possible that Somali refugees in Nairobi are making calculated decisions to return to Mogadishu, where security conditions have improved considerably in recent months.

The installation of a more stable new government in September 2012 has also raised the hopes of Somalis in the diaspora, who are going back home to rebuilt their homes and invest in the local economy.

Mogadishu’s gain could become Nairobi’s loss

Eastleigh, a vibrant Somali-dominated neighbourhood where the shopping malls alone make an estimated $7 million (more than half a billion Kenyan shillings) a year, is slowly shutting down.

Traders and shopkeepers are closing down their businesses and heading to Somalia.

While the High Court in January issued an injunction temporarily halting the relocation of refugees to camps, the psychological impact of the government’s directive has been devastating. It is akin to the “Quit Kenya” notices that were issued to Asians living in Nairobi in the 1960s, which led to a mass exodus of Asians from Kenya to Britain and other places.

To be fair, Kenya has been extremely accommodating to the thousands of Somali and other refugees that have sought shelter within its borders, and has also suffered the consequences.

The Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, currently home to about half a million refugees, has been in existence for over 20 years.  Overcrowding is a perennial problem, as is insecurity. Human rights organisations say that the conditions in the camp are deplorable and that harassment and rape of women refugees – by Kenyan security forces and fellow refugees – is common.

According to reports by the International Peace Institute and the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, human trafficking and gun-running from Dadaab to Nairobi is rife. Terrorists have also apparently been using the Dadaab camp to enter the country.

The United Nations and Kenya government officials have in the past been accused of “selling” visas and other documentation to refugees and Kenyan Somalis  in Western countries.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that senior officials within Kenya’s immigration department may have been demanding bribes or sexual favours from Somalis seeking rights to stay in the country.

These are some of the factors that could have prompted the government of Kenya to seek a more permanent solution to the refugee crisis in the country. In May 2012, President Mwai Kibaki said that the Dadaab camp was unsustainable and that the international community should assist the government to send Somali refugees back to their country.

The status of ethnic Somalis – both citizens  and non-citizens – in Kenya has always been precarious.

The Shifta War of the 1960s and the Bulla Kartasi and Wagalla massacres of the 1980s were the consequences of the state’s ambivalent attitude towards its ethnic Somali population, which it blamed for insecurity in North Eastern region.

Discriminatory screening exercises in the late 1980s that were intended to flush out illegal aliens from the country ended up alienating Kenyan Somalis, who were forced to apply for a “screening card” that supposedly established the holder’s Kenyan roots. Most Kenyan Somalis still carry these cards, alongside their Kenyan IDs.

Unsure of their rights, both as citizens and as refugees, the ethnic Somali community in Kenya, like the minority Asian community, has been an easy target for bribes by the police and government officials.

Kenyan Somalis often complain about the demands for “chai,” not just from police officers, but also from service providers.  Getting a telephone line or an ID can be laborious – and expensive.

However, the problems facing minorities and marginalised groups in Kenya is not restricted to Somalis or Asians.

“Due to the way the Kenyan nation state has been constructed and negotiated since colonial times, some groups have more rights and protections than others,” says Emma Lochery in a recent paper published in African Affairs.

Those lower down the “citizenship ladder,” such as Somalis, Asians, Nubians and other groups deemed to be “non-indigenous,” are more vulnerable to state persecution.

The Kenyan state, Lochery writes, decides who is an insider and who is an outsider and which territorial spaces they should occupy. This had led to the politics of exclusion based on geographical boundaries.

Nairobi’s ethnic Somalis, like Kenya’s Asian community, are an entrepreneurial lot, who despite the poor infrastructure in Eastleigh, managed to create a local economy that is vibrant and globally connected to places such as the Middle East and China. Nairobi’s gross domestic product is deeply intertwined with that of Eastleigh.

The dilemma facing Kenyan policymakers is how to deal with an urban refugee population that is an integral part of the country’s economy. The mass exodus of people and capital from Eastleigh could create the kind of economic stagnation and instability experienced by Uganda when Asians were expelled from the country in 1972 by Idi Amin’s regime.

 Rasna Warah is a contributor to Sahan Journal. You can follow her on Twitter @RasnaWarah or email her at rasna.warah@gmail.com

Image courtesy of Daily Nation

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