Kenya rounds up thousands of immigrants in Nairobi’s Eastleigh suburb

by: John David Bwakali

(NAIROBI, Kenya) Official efforts are underway in Kenya to round up 50,000 people who have come to the country fleeing conflict, and corral them into two enormous refugee camps. In just one Nairobi neighborhood, thousands of people have been arrested in the past few weeks.  The effects of these mass arrests and forced relocations are hard felt in communities densely populated by immigrants.

First Avenue in Nairobi’s Eastleigh suburb is home to Garissa Lodge, the best known shopping mall in the area. It is not grand and flashy, but has almost everything, ranging from Japanese electronics and Egyptian shoes to oriental garments and Arabian gold ornaments. Within a three-mile radius of Garissa Lodge there are dozens of other malls and hundreds of stalls, all boasting the  “latest arrivals” from all over the world. They make Eastleigh a shopper’s paradise.

On any given day, thousands of people shop here. Most arrive in matatus, public mini-buses and leave hours later in these same matatus with plastic bags full of diverse wares bought at great bargains.

Yusuf sells shoes at a smaller mall, just around the corner from Garissa Lodge. He is a Kenyan-Somali from Garissa in Northern Kenya. The three shelves in his stall are overflowing with high-heeled shoes, leather sandals and sneakers. Although he was born in Kenya and has a national identity card, he says that he no longer feels like a Kenyan.

“Every time I see police in front of me, I dig into my pocket just to confirm that I have my ID card.” He says that if police find him without the card, they will accuse him of being an illegal Somali refugee and arrest him. “The only reason they demand to see my documents is because I look like a Somali,” he laments.

After two grenade explosions in a restaurant and a market area on the last day of March, at least two thousand people from Eastleigh, most of them Somalis, have been arrested.

Six people were killed in those explosions, prompting a widespread police operation to apprehend their killers. The six were ordinary Kenyans, enjoying dinner at the budget restaurant when terrorism took their lives. Critics say that most of the Somalis who were rounded up in the security operation that followed the twin explosions are also ordinary Kenyans.

“When you target an area like Eastleigh, where you know 90 percent of people who live there are from one community, and you keep saying we are not profiling, we are not targeting, you are targeting one ethnic community,” said Billow Kerrow, the Senator of Mandera County. More than 95 percent of his constituents are Somali.

More than two million Kenyans are of Somali ethnicity. Most of them live in Northern Kenya while the majority of those in Nairobi live in Eastleigh.

“Elgiva Bwire, who confessed to being an al Shabaab member and pleaded guilty to a grenade attack in 2011 is not a Somali but is from western Kenya,” points out Kassim Ahmed is a university student who lives in a studio apartment along Eastleigh’s Second Avenue. “Did the police arrest two thousand people from western Kenya because of this crime? No. Why then are they doing this to us?”

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, together with his deputy, William Ruto, have on several occasions insisted that the so-called “war against terror” targets terrorists and not simply those from any given religion or ethnic community. But the police sweep in Eastleigh has left Somalis like Senator Kerrow and Kassim the student convinced that, as a community, they are in the crosshairs of the government’s anti-terrorism operations.

Adan Duale, a Kenyan-Somali who is the majority leader of the National Assembly of Kenya, has threatened to resign from the government if the extensive police operation in Eastleigh is not halted.

One floor above  Kassim’s studio apartment is a flashy restaurant that sells delicious Somali food like arosto (fried goat) and aleso (boiled goat). Many of the waiters serving these delicacies cannot communicate in Swahili, Kenya’s national language. Most of them are part of the 43,000 Somali refugees who reside in Eastleigh. These are the people that the government is targeting for deportation back to Somalia. At least one hundred and ten people have already been forcibly returned.

Those who fight deportation have been ordered to go back to refugee camps in northern Kenya.

In a statement, Cabinet Secretary in charge of internal security, Joseph Ole Lenku, announced the closure of all refugee centers in the country except for the two enormous and underserviced camps at Dadaab and Kakuma.

“Consequently, all refugee registration centers in urban areas – Nairobi, Mombasa, Malindi, Isiolo and Nakuru are hereby closed,” reads the statement. “All Kenyans are requested to report to the Police any refugee/and or illegal immigrants found outside the designated refugee camps.”

This directive has been criticized by Human Rights Watch, which says “Kenya is once again using attacks by unknown criminals to stigmatize all refugees as potential terrorists. This plan to force tens of thousands of refugees into appalling conditions in severely overcrowded camps flouts a crystal clear court ruling banning such a move.”

Caught in this tug of war between security and human rights are ordinary Kenyan Somalis. They say that security shouldn’t have to come at the expense of their human rights.

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