Ignored by most of the world, an ongoing refugee crisis in Kenya is at a breaking point. The plight of Somali refugees, who are seeking a safe place in Kenya against persecution and violence, is becoming increasingly grim. Human Rights Watch recently came out with an extensive report detailing the horrific neglect of immigrants already in Kenya, as well as the abuse and systemic violations of rights of those who are trying to enter the already closed borders of Kenya.
Ill equipped to adequately deal with staggering numbers of refugees, 300,000 alone just in the town of Dadaab, the Kenyan government made a controversial decision to close its borders, hoping to choke the influx of refugees. This move did not stop the movement of desperate civilians, most of whom are women and children, into Kenya. What it did was expose those most vulnerable to systemic abuse and further persecution by the Kenyan police.
Threats of rape against women and their children are well documented. As one of the Somali women recounted during her crossing into Kenya, the border police advised her that ”you can’t complain about rape, theft or beating if you insist to stay here and nobody is responsible for your safety.” Women are further subject to the threat of rape and physical abuse once in refugee camps. Inadequate living conditions and lack of segregated sanitary structures, leaves them exposed to intimidation and abuses not only from the authorities, but also from their male compatriots.
As I read this story, I could not avoid drawing a parallel with my own experiences as a Bosnian refugee, living in a refugee camp in Croatia for several months. Conditions that Somali women are forced to endure are unimaginable and not at all resembling those that I experienced first- hand. The camp that I stayed at used to be a secret Yugoslavian army military compound on an island off the Adriatic coast. The numbers of refugees there were regulated and we lived in physically sound structures, with doors that we could lock for added safety. Our bathrooms were segregated and only fourteen women shared one toilet. We had running water and well balanced meals. A doctor’s office on site, and access to mail and telephones were all at our reach.
However, the threat of rape and abuse was real even in my “paradise camp.” Covertly, the camp officials would use their positions of authority to secure sexual favors. Male refugees would often follow us, to the latrines, intimidating us at the door, trying to break in through the bathroom windows, physically blocking our entrance into the sleeping quarters etc. This overt intimidation at broad daylight made us acutely aware of our vulnerability and prevented us from any outside movement at night. This self- imposed isolation for the sake of security, coupled with the omission of authorities to adequately secure the premises, helped marginalize women even further. Without protection, we became imprisoned, caught in a limbo, somewhere between human and civil rights.
The Somali refugee crisis is a human tragedy, and that alone should be sufficient enough to warrant a real, concerted effort to create a viable solution, not only for the Somalis but also for Kenya’s already shaky economic and ecological viability. However, just an increase of refugee camps, and the expansion of already existing ones, is not sufficient enough to help stop the violence against those most vulnerable. Sure, the priority is in securing basic provisions and hygienic necessities, but also the internal corruption, black markets and illegal activities that take advantage of documented and undocumented refugees, all have to be challenged. What is needed is a system that will offer a protection of those who are escaping persecution and abuse. What needs to be protected are their civil liberties along with their human rights. Without both, they remain perpetual victims, caught between a rock and a hard place.