Kenya should stop rounding up vulnerable urban refugees and readmit those whose lives are at risk after being deported to Somalia, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Wednesday.
In the last two months, Kenyan authorities have deported more than 300 people to Somalia in a bid to end attacks by Islamist militants carried out in retaliation for Kenya's military intervention into the war-torn neighbouring state.
"We have come across cases of registered refugees who were erroneously refouled whose readmission we have requested," Emmanuel Nyabera, UNHCR's Kenya spokesman, told Thomson Reuters Foundation on Wednesday.
"We have gone to the [police] cells and we have been told that there is refoulement, and in such cases then we communicate with our officers in Mogadishu so that least we continue ensuring the protection of these people."
The principle of non-refoulement is a core tenet of customary international law, meaning that governments should not return people to countries where their life or freedom would be threatened.
Somalis have faced an increasingly hostile environment in Kenya following a string of attacks on Kenyan soil by Somalia-based militant group al Shabaab - most infamously their deadly assault on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall in September.
Kenya has hosted around half a million Somali refugees following its neighbour's collapse into civil war in 1991.
Kenyan police arrested more than 4,000 suspected "illegal aliens and criminals" in the first week of the security operation, cabinet secretary for the interior Joseph ole Lenku said. Many were held in overcrowded cells for long periods and have faced extortion, while children have been separated from their parents, rights groups said.
On Tuesday, 90 Somali refugees were flown to the Somali capital Mogadishu after being held in a police station at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said. They were the fourth group of Somalis to be deported since the crackdown began, taking the total to more than 350, it said.
"There were women and children within those who were deported and at least one elderly man," Laetitia Bader, a researcher with HRW who spoke to the Somali ambassador who was on the flight, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Once again, UNHCR and other protection actors haven't had access to the individuals before they were deported."
Bader said some of those deported on previous flights were refugees with legitimate registration documents, while others were Kenyan citizens and one was an Ethiopian child.
On Wednesday, Kenya said it had deported 442 people for "misdeeds such as not having proper identification documents, being in the country illegally, possessing illicit weapons among other crimes" between the start of April and May 13. Among these, 310 were Somalis, as well as 55 Ethiopians, 32 Ugandans and 31 Tanzanians.
A total of 2,456 people had been screened in order to "weed out bad elements in the population" that were behind numerous attacks in Kenya, the ministry of foreign affairs said in a statement.
It has been difficult for agencies including UNHCR, which is responsible for the protection of refugees and asylum seekers, to access those being held.
"We don't have access to many of them as I speak," Nyabera said. "Once we have access, then it's easy for us to have the interviews with them and to ensure that at least they are genuine cases... The problem that we have been having is access."
The government said that it is ensuring that "screening is done in the most humane manner" and that "the Kasarani holding camp also remains open to human rights groups", referring to a Nairobi sports stadium where thousands have been held for questioning.
Following screening, more than 2,045 refugees, mostly Somalis, have been sent to overcrowded camps on Kenya's northern border, UNHCR said.
On March 25, Kenya ordered all refugees living in urban areas to move to camps. Last year, the High Court found a similar order made in 2012 illegal.
Previously, refugees who could support themselves or were in need of specialised education or medical care had been allowed to live in urban areas. Many Somalis have lived in Nairobi for decades and run thriving businesses.
UNHCR called on the government to allow such refugees to continue to live in urban areas.
"Urban areas are legitimate places for refugees to enjoy their rights," said Nyabera.
"A certain category of them should be given exception, especially the elderly, the sick, those who have developed coping mechanisms in towns and also those who are having their children going to school here in Nairobi."