The Situation of Somali Bravanese Refugees in Kenya
By Yusuf Abdi Salah
The armed conflict in Somalia, which began in December 1990, and the subsequent anarchy, has caused great suffering to minority communities, particularly the Bravanese – an ethnic minority group believed to be the descendants of Arab immigrants who settled in Somalia’s coastal town of Brava some 2,000 years ago. Many Bravanese were killed in the war, or died of other causes such as hunger and disease, while others were forced to abandon their homes and take refuge in Kenya and elsewhere. The first Bravanese refugee group of 112 people arrived in Mombasa in 1991, and were settled in Santa Anna camp – an abandoned school near the centre of town. The number of Bravanese refugees had increased to 5,000 by 1992, and the new arrivals were settled in a new camp at Hatimi, also in Mombasa.
The Kenyan government, perturbed by the large number of refugees entering the country and the deteriorating security conditions in Kenya, decided to close all camps in Mombasa in 1996 and relocate refugees to camps far away, near the north and northeastern border of Kenya. This has not only caused distress to the Bravanese, but has also been a cause of concern for some United Nations (UN) officials and donor countries such as the USA. In 1996, Albert Alein Peters, the UNHCR representative in Somalia, wrote to the Joint Voluntary Agency (JVA) – a US agency that deals with resettlement programmes for refugees to the USA. He stated that, for security reasons, the Bravanese refugees could not be repatriated to Somalia or relocated to other camps. Peters proposed resettlement of the Bravanese refugees in a third country, such as the USA, as the most effective and lasting solution to their problems.
Some months after Peters’ letter, the US government initiated a resettlement programme and 4,500 Bravanese refugees were resettled in the USA between 1997 and 1998. However, about 1,000 genuine Bravanese refugees were left out of the programme, because they were not registered with the UNHCR, and because of alleged mismanagement and corruption by the Bravanese refugee committee and some staff members of the UNHCR in Kenya. Hundreds of extra vacancies were said to have been sold to Somalis of other clans, to the detriment of those left out, that is, the many Bravanese staying both in the camps and elsewhere in Mombasa without refugee identification papers. The latter were vulnerable to police harassment and detention, and also forced repatriation to Somalia.
Camp closures and relocation
The closure of the camps in Mombasa was officially announced in 1998, along with frequent threats of punishment for any refugees found in Mombasa. Many refugees, including 150 Bravanese families (600 people) of those who missed out on the resettlement programme, fearing detention or repatriation, have gone to Kakuma in north-east Kenya. About 400 Bravanese refugees have refused to go and risk their lives in a border area where cattle rustling, clashes between clans, rape and other crimes are widespread.
The Bravanese families who went to Kakuma found harsh living conditions and insecurity, and have received very little protection and assistance. One of the major problems in the camp is starvation caused by the very small rations given to refugees. The ration stands at 3 kg of maize, 3 kg of flour, 0.5 kg of beans, 0.5 ml of cooking oil, 0.5 g of salt and a bundle of firewood for each refugee for three weeks. Small as this ration is, the difficulty of getting it from the large, crowded distribution centre makes the situation worse. There are only three distribution centres serving 80,000 refugees from different countries in East and Central Africa. There is also an acute water shortage. Refugees have to stand all day in a long queue to get a jerrycan of water from a few taps that serve all the refugees. This poor diet and lack of sufficient clean water causes malnutrition and diseases such as cholera, typhoid and TB. The camp has few health centres and these lack drugs and skilled personnel. Shelter is another problem, particularly for the new arrivals who are exposed to the hot sun and wind in this arid region, before being provided with materials for building huts.
In addition to these harsh conditions, security in the camp has deteriorated since 1999, as a result of a long and severe drought in the region. Hundreds of local people searching for food and water have come into the camp. Some have attacked the refugees with knives, and looted food and goods. The Bravanese are among the most vulnerable, as they are located in a zone (Kakuma II) within the camp which is 8 km away from the UNHCR and police administration, and which therefore has very little security provision. In July 1999, a 22-year-old Bravanese boy was shot dead by bandits in a daylight attack. The feeling of insecurity in the camp was further exacerbated by mysterious fires, which have made the refugees more fearful. Since January 2000, there have been a number of fires that have destroyed more than 1,000 houses and left about 10,500 refugees without shelter. Many refugees, including 90 Bravanese families, were traumatized and returned to Mombasa.
Conditions in Mombasa
Despite these conditions, the Kenyan government and UNHCR wish to forcibly relocate the Bravanese refugees from Mombasa to Kakuma. In August 1999, 96 Bravanese refugees, including a 2-day-old boy and his mother, were rounded up by police, detained for five days in Mombasa Central Police Station and mistreated.
After five days, the Bravanese were taken to court in Mombasa. They were charged with being present in Kenya illegally, and each of them was fined KSh 3,000 (US $42), or, in default, sentenced to two months imprisonment, and then repatriation to Somalia. There is no central government in Somalia and the hostile clan militia who persecuted the Bravanese and drove them from their lands are still in control. Although they were released and their case was kept pending through an affidavit sworn by an advocate (A.O. Sherman), stating that the Bravanese are genuine refugees, there is still fear that the final outcome of the court case will be forced repatriation to Somalia. Forced repatriation of refugees is prohibited under Article 23 of the UN Refugee Convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 14) and the OAU Convention (Article 99). The presence of the Bravanese refugees in Mombasa is also jeopardized by growing xenophobia among Kenyans, exacerbated by a deteriorating economy and a tendency by some politicians to blame the refugees for this – which led to the burning of Santa Anna refugee camp in 1997, and other refugee camps on the coast.
The living conditions of the Bravanese refugees in Santa Anna is currently very precarious, as a result of the suspension of UNHCR provision to the Bravanese refugees there since 1994. From that time, the Bravanese and their children have been suffering starvation and ill health. Their only source of aid is charity from neighbouring mosques and small funds raised in Kenya and overseas by a Bravanese NGO, Al-Muakhat, to purchase food and medicines. Although there are many Bravanese in the camp who have skills and who could work to generate some income, because they do not have UNHCR identification documents, they are discouraged from leaving the camp. Some Bravanese who were found in town without identification have ended up in jail.
The Bravanese refugees are genuine refugees who have a well-founded fear of persecution in their country. They deserve the full protection and assistance granted to refugees by the UN Refugee Convention and other international and regional humanitarian law. Some of the pressing assistance that the Bravanese refugees in Mombasa need includes:
- Relief food and medicine to alleviate the starvation and ill health affecting many of the Bravanese refugees who live in Mombasa.
- Identification papers to confirm their refugee status and prevent their detention and forced repatriation.
- Settlement in another, larger camp in Mombasa, which could accommodate the hundreds of other Bravanese who live elsewhere in Mombasa.
- UNHCR intervention in the Bravanese case in the Mombasa High Court to prevent forced repatriation to Somalia.
- Resettlement to a third country, in Europe or America, as a lasting solution to their problems.
Yusuf Abdi Salah is the Chair of the Centre for Minority Rights and Development Initiative – Somalia.