Nairobi — Kenyan authorities should immediately end ongoing harassment, arbitrary detentions, forced relocations to refugee camps, and summary deportations in a round-up operation that has affected both foreigners and Kenyan citizens.
The government should also give the UN refugee agency full access to all detainees to identify registered refugees, asylum seekers, and anyone seeking protection, regardless of when they came to Kenya.
The round-up operation, which began on April 1, 2014, has been riddled with abuses, Human Rights Watch found. Government security forces have raided homes, buildings, and shops; looted cell phones, money, and other goods; harassed and extorted residents; and detained thousands - including journalists, Kenyan citizens, and international aid workers - without charge and in appalling conditions for periods well beyond the 24-hour limit set by Kenyan law.
"Kenyan police and security forces are using abusive and discriminatory tactics in the name of national security, targeting entire communities," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
"This crackdown clearly violates basic rights of Kenyans, refugees, and other foreign nationals and does nothing to improve security."
Human Rights Watch interviewed 21 refugees who had been detained at various police stations in Nairobi, including Pangani, Shauri Moyo, Kamukunji, Kasarani, and Gigiri stations.
Operation Usalama Watch began following grenade and gun attacks in Mombasa and Nairobi by unknown perpetrators on March 23 and March 31 that killed 12 and injured at least eight.
On April 5, Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku announced that 6,000 police had deployed to Nairobi's Eastleigh neighborhood to arrest foreign nationals who were in the country unlawfully and anyone suspected of terroristlinks.
The operation has particularly affected Somalis, ethnic Somali Kenyans, Ethiopians, South Sudanese, and Kenyan Muslim populations in Nairobi's Eastleigh and "South C" neighborhoods, Mombasa's Likoni area, and in other towns in central Kenya and the coast region.
Authorities have detained thousands of people in police stations without charge. On April 9 Lenku announced that almost 4,000 had been arrested and since then arrests and releases have continued, with many people transferred between places of detention. Some have been held for more than three weeks, Human Rights Watch found.
On March 26 Lenku announced that all urban refugees should be relocated to Kenya's refugee camps. The move is in clear breach of a 2013 High Court order quashing the authorities' previous attempt to move people into camps. Kenyan lawyers have challenged the latest order.
Witnesses have described that security forces have routinely confiscated or destroyed documentation, and frequently extorted large sums of money in exchange for release.
Residents of Eastleigh told Human Rights Watch they paid between KES500 to 5,000 (USD$5.88 to $8.80) to avoid being detained, or up to KES40,000 ($470) to secure their release. Police have confiscated both expired and valid UN refugee documents, and in some cases have torn them up.
Some refugees moved from Nairobi to the remote refugee camps as the only way to avoid paying bribes to stay out of detention.
A 25-year-old Somali refugee told Human Rights Watch in the Dadaab camp that he relocated there after his relatives paid KES35,000 ($408) for his release from the Pangani police station and police confiscated his Kenyan government-issued "alien certificate." "I came as I didn't have any more money to pay bribes if they came again," he said. "I have no options."
Human Rights Watch saw detainees being whipped at the Pangani station, and former detainees said police kicked, beat, pushed, and threatened to shoot or deport them during the raids and arrests.
At least two people have died during round-ups. On April 13, a 6-month-old baby girl died in her crib three days after police arrested her mother, a registered refugee, and refused to allow her to bring her baby to the police station, leaving the baby alone, according to neighbors. Local media also reported that a pregnant woman died after police officers pushed her off a police truck during a round-up.
Detainees described unsanitary conditions and complained of insufficient food. Many said they would go for days without food. At the Pangani police station, they said, only relatives who could bribe police officers with KES100 ($1.16) were able to get food to detainees in the cells.
"The cells were full beyond capacity," a former detainee told Human Rights Watch. "We sat on each other inside, or else one had to stand straight to fit. The toilets next to the cells were overflowing and human waste would flow back to the cells where we were. No one could go to the toilets, so we helped ourselves on the floor inside the cells and then we all ended up trampling on it."
In the operation in Nairobi, detainees said they were typically held until authorities at the Kasarani stadium screened them to establish whether they are lawfully present in Kenya, in what appears to be a slow and nontransparent process. After screening, detainees are either charged with unlawful presence, deported, released, or ordered to relocate to refugee camps.
"People are languishing in dirty, cramped cells, without being brought before a magistrate, as required by law," Bekele said. "The authorities should release or charge these people and ensure basic standards of care while they are in detention."
Two weeks after the screening began, Lenku announced that just 1,136 had been screened, of whom 225 would be deported and 412 relocated to camps.
On April 22, he announced that 313 would be tried on immigration charges. It is not clear how authorities are deciding whom to deport without charges and whom to charge, Human Rights Watch said.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says the Kenyan authorities have denied UNHCR access to detainees in police cells, at the Kasarani stadium, and at the airport to identify registered refugees and asylum seekers or people who wish to claim asylum because they fear serious harm in Somalia.
"The Kenyan authorities appear to be making decisions that violate detainees' due process rights and that risk unlawfully returning large numbers of Somalis to their country," Bekele said. "They should immediately allow UNHCR access to all detention facilities, including the stadium where people's residence status is being verified."
Since mid-April, hundreds of refugees have relocated from urban areas to the overcrowded Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. Many have never before lived in the camps. In some cases parents were forcibly separated from their children, who remain in the cities.
Yusuf, a 20-year-old refugee registered in Nairobi, relocated to Dadaab after he was arrested at his home in early April, spent six days in Pangani and Kasarani stadium, and was only released after his uncle paid KES9,000 ($105) to a policeman at Kasarani.
He told Human Rights Watch shortly after his arrival in Dadaab: "This is when I came to the camp, the government was saying all refugees should come to the camps. I don't have close relatives here. But there are problems in Somalia so I can't go there either."
The urban refugee relocations to camps appear to violate Kenyan law. A July 2013 ruling by Kenya's High Court concluded that a December 2012 plan to relocate urban refugees to camps violated refugees' rights and dignity.
Since April 9, 2014, authorities have also deported 261 peoples by air to Mogadishu: 83 on April 9, 91 on April 17, and 87 on May 3. UNHCR was not given access to the deportees at Nairobi's international airport before they were removed from Kenya.
Mariam, a 32-year-old registered refugee who was arrested while visiting Nairobi, was among the 83 people deported on April 9 after Kenyan authorities refused to accept her refugee status document.
Her children, ages 5, 10, and 15, are living in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp with her elderly father. "I hope the government of Kenya will let me go back to my family," she told Human Rights Watch in Mogadishu. "The only home I have is that refugee camp."
In another case, two children, ages 16 and 14, who had been bornand brought up in Kenya, were separated from their family and deported on April 9, despite holding refugee and school identity documents.
Kenya should stop summarily deporting Somali nationals, which risks violating its obligations under Kenyan and international law not to return anyone to situations of persecution or generalized violence.
Any undocumented individuals should be given the opportunity to lodge asylum claims and UNHCR should be given access to detainees to identify such people, Human Rights Watch said.
Forcibly returning someone to a threat of persecution or to a place where a person would be at real risk of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment is refoulement and is prohibited under international law.
UNHCR has called Somalia "a very dangerous place," and said no Somali should be forcibly returned there unless assured that they would not risk persecution.
UNHCR's role in identifying registered refugees and asylum seekers and those who want to claim asylum is all the more important after Kenya suspended all services to urban refugees, and stopped registering new asylum seekers in the cities in December 2012, Human Rights Watch said. The move followed suspension of all refugee registration in refugee camps in October 2011.
Kenyan authorities are carrying out collective punishment under the guise of fighting terrorism," Bekele said. "This abusive operation violates the fundamental rights and freedoms of Kenyans and non-Kenyans alike, and risks making the country more divided and insecure."