Kenya must cancel an order to tens of thousands of Somalis living in urban areas to return to refugee camps, rights groups said on Wednesday, warning that the plan flew in the face of a court ruling which had banned such a move.
Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku issued the order on Tuesday, citing "emergency security challenges" in Kenyan towns. The government is trying to stop attacks by Islamist militants in retaliation for its intervention in neighbouring Somalia, such as an attack on a church near Mombasa on Sunday in which six worshippers were killed.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Kenya was stigmatising all refugees as potential terrorists, while Refugees International (RI) warned that the minister's order could set a dangerous precedent, potentially endangering millions of refugees around the world.
"Kenya has signed international conventions that allow freedom of movement for refugees, and Tuesday's decision flies in the face of those assurances," said RI Senior Advocate Mark Yarnell.
"For years, Kenya was a generous host to Somali refugees, permitting many to become self-sufficient and contribute to the country's economy and society. This decision marks a disturbing shift in the wrong direction, and it should not stand."
Until now, refugees who could support themselves or needed specialised education or medical care have been allowed to live in urban areas in Kenya.
But Lenku said they must immediately return to Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps in the north and that anyone who did not do so would be prosecuted.
HRW said some 50,000 refugees would be affected. "Kenya is once again using attacks by unknown criminals to stigmatise all refugees as potential terrorists," said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at HRW. "This plan to force tens of thousands of refugees into appalling conditions in severely overcrowded camps flouts a crystal clear court ruling banning such a move."
The rights group said Dadaab was already bursting at the seams with about 400,000 refugees crammed into space meant for 170,000.
In July 2013, Kenya's High Court struck down a 2012 directive to force all refugees into camps. In his ruling, Judge D.S. Majanja wrote that the order "threatens the rights and fundamental freedoms of the petitioners and other refugees residing in urban areas and is a violation of freedom of movement ... right to dignity ... and violates the State's responsibility towards persons in vulnerable situations".
RI said all Kenyan residents - citizens and refugees alike - should be concerned by the government's decision to ignore a High Court ruling.
It also warned that the order could lead to violence against refugees. After the 2012 directive, RI advocates heard accounts of security officials threatening refugees in their homes, arbitrarily arresting them, taking their property, and even sexually assaulting women and girls in front of family members.
The al Qaeda-linked Somali Islamist militant group al Shabaab and its sympathisers have carried out several attacks in Kenya, including one at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi last year in which at least 67 people were killed. On Sunday, gunmen killed six worshippers in a church near the coastal city of Mombasa.
Al Shabaab militants have threatened to carry out further attacks if Kenyan troops do not withdraw from Somalia, where they are battling Islamist insurgents as part of an African Union peacekeeping force.