An elderly Somali woman sits outside a kitchen in the Hagadera sector of the Dadaab refugee camp, north of the Kenyan capital Nairobi. Photo: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images
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What it’s like to be a Somali refugee in Kenya

Hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees have fled Al-Shabab across the border. But in Kenya, they face racial profiling, police searches and the constant threat of repatriation.

Mohamed Haji Hasan fled his home in Mogadishu four years ago, after the Islamist group Al-Shabab came to the office of the television station where he worked. They confiscated equipment and gave staff a stark choice: join us, or die. For a while he stayed on, lying low, but the text message threats became more frequent; the news of colleagues being shot dead too hard to ignore. He fled to Kenya, the neighbouring country, and sought asylum.

When I met him last year, he was living in the capital city Nairobi and working as a journalist for a Somali-language radio station. But all was not well. “I came here to get free, to get life. But everything has changed. The Kenyan government says that Al Shabab elements are present in Eastleigh [a Somali slum in Nairobi], the same element we ran away from. We don’t know where else to go.”

There is no doubt that Al-Shabab is active in Kenya. Perhaps the most high profile incident was the three day siege of the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi in September 2013, which left more than 175 people dead. More recently, in April this year, gunmen stormed the Garissa University College, not far from Kenya’s border with Somalia, and killed 147 students.

These horrendous attacks shocked Kenya and the world. They have had far-reaching implications – not least on Kenya’s large population of Somali refugees. After the Westgate attack, a crackdown began. Thousands of Somalis were rounded up, arrested, and some even deported to Mogadishu. After the Garissa attack, the situation has been little better. President Uhuru Kenyatta threatened to expel all Somali refugees from the country within three months. He vowed to close Dadaab, which as one of the world’s largest and oldest refugee camps is home to more than 350,000 Somalis. Government officials said that Dadaab was a breeding ground for Al-Shabab. Meanwhile, Eastleigh was, yet again, subject to an intense search operation.

For the residents of Eastleigh, this is nothing new. When I met Mohamed in May last year, he said he had been searched 8 times that month alone. His colleague, Said Hassan Anteno, who had lived in Kenya for five years, had a similar story to tell. “Sometimes you can’t get to work freely because of the checkpoints. It used to be a business hub, but now it’s a military frontline. Police intimidation is part of our daily life. When they see Somali person, they assume that you are illegal. I have paid a lot of money in bribes. They don’t accept that I am legal, even though I have a refugee card. They say it’s fake and demand money.”

Under pressure from the UN, Kenyatta has now pulled back from the threat of forced repatriations for Somalis, some of whom have lived in Kenya for decades. But Somali refugees are still under enormous pressure. According to Refugees International, the two initiatives – a clamp down on Dadaab and the security operation in Nairobi – has opened the door to increased levels of “abuse, extortion, and harassment of refugees by the Kenyan police”. This affects every aspect of life; Somali residents describe being unable to board buses if they have large bags, as they are deemed a security threat. As Said and Mohamed described, police regularly stop them and demand ID, and then ask for bribes. Houses in Somali areas are raided at all times of day or night.

This crackdown, which according to most analysts and anecdotal reports is based more on racial profiling than any meaningful intelligence, has also affected Kenyan citizens of Somali descent. Abdirisak Osman was born in Nairobi to Somali parents, and has a Kenyan passport. “I was born and bred in Kenya. I’m a Kenyan, but just because of my look, my appearance, I get the same treatment, even if I produce my ID or speak Swahili. It’s profiling the Somalis. How can I be patriotic when I am treated like this?”

All of these men, like many other Somali refugees in Nairobi and elsewhere in Kenya, have the legal right to be in the country, yet find themselves vilified by the media and harassed by the police. “Eastleigh has become a hunting zone,” said Abdirisak. “Every predator is coming here to seek bribes.”

This harsh treatment comes despite the fact that security experts say that there is no evidence linking either Dadaab or refugees more generally to Al-Shabab. “This is collective punishment,” said Mohamed. Kenya is home to rising religious tension and longstanding ethnic rivalries; it is against this backdrop that the vilification of Somalis has become so prevalent. It is difficult to see the continued scapegoating of this community as anything other than a government desperate to detract attention from its inability to protect citizens by scapegoating the other.

“We Somalis are the most victimised people in this world,” Said told me last year. “Al-Shabab, they kill us, back home and here. At the same time, we are being accused of being Al-Shabab. We want to stay here, but it’s tough. Kenya was Plan A, but I think we need to find Plan B, because we cannot live like this. We cannot survive.”

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.