- as they decry brutality, bribery and threats in Kenya

When you cry and weep, when you are miserable, you are alone. When you celebrate, the whole existence participates with you, so the saying goes.

To a number of urban refugees, sorrows and pain are the bane of their existence, and not even agencies mandated to protect them are standing up for them to put a smile on their face.

As their host countrymen and women troop for festivities and plan for the new year, theirs is anxiety and fear of being abused and beaten when the world isn’t watching, as it is engrossed in celebrations.

Daniel Kahura was among 11 refugees who visited the Star on Tuesday. Some were limping, others aided to walk by leaning on the shoulders of their colleagues.

“It is the festive season again,” he said. “That time when UN High Commissioner for Refugees officials or their agents take their abuses, threats and harassment against us a notch higher. This is the worst time to be a refugee in Kenya. They will raid our makeshift abode and descend on us with blows and kicks.” 

Tired of unending promises that have kept them in destitution and limbo for years, some of the refugees gathered some courage on December 17 and decided to confront officers at UNHCR, seeking explanation on the progress on their cases.

Ifrah Khalif, 26, has been seeking asylum status and protection for two years with no success.

“We submitted our documents for processing,” she said. “Among us there are those awaiting resettlement, others seeking protection, others just mere recognition. But for some it’s been over six years of waiting and daily trips to follow up on progress. No one, even the specific case officers, is ready to brief us on how far they are. They always tell us to come tomorrow. We recoil to our makeshift homes with desperation.

“On Monday (December 17), we decided to raise our voices. The response from those who are supposed to protect us and help us was more brutality.” 

She blamed the reluctance by officers to process their documents on their inability to ‘oil’ the hands of some of the case workers at UNHCR Westlands office, an allegation UNHCR officials have flatly denied.

“We have seen those who bribe. The moment they show up, they are put at a safe house as their documents are fast-tracked. In less than a week, most of them their cases are sorted. For us, it is ages of endless trips here,” Khalif said.

TEETH KNOCKED OUT

Writhing in pain, perhaps from the blows and kicks sustained, Mohamed Mahamoud says on the fateful day, they had congregated at the UNHCR office to seek answers on why their cases had delayed.

“We were told a senior UNHCR official was visiting the office, so we should exit because we are an embarrassment. When we remained adamant, they started beating us. We tried to run but some of us were unlucky,” he said.

“They bundled me and four others into a police Land Cruiser. In there, we were kicked, beaten and slapped. Other than the three of us here, some of my two colleagues are at the hospital,” he said, showing us some of the injuries sustained on his ribs and legs, with tears lingering in his eyes.

Mohamoud can’t walk on his own as a result of the beatings. He now relies on his colleagues as the crutches to take him from one point to the next.

This is not the first time he has been in such circumstances, three years ago he was beaten by unknown people, losing the entire set of his upper teeth.

He has been camping at UNHCR office, seeking protection against fears of being abducted and returned to Somalia.

Amina Mohamed, who has been in Kenya for six years, suffering a broken tooth, is among those who were bundled into the Land Cruiser.

She speaks through a translator, but visibly with difficulty and pain. Occasionally tears flow freely down her cheeks.

“This has become a routine to us. They used to bundle us into cars every week and have us locked up in police cells every time we raised issues on our cases. But it seems they are changing tack and now employing brutality to instil pain and fear in us,” she said.

AGENCY DEFENSIVE

Yvonne Ndege, the UNHCR spokesperson, admits there was fracas at their offices in Westlands. She said some of the refugees tried to block the main road, prompting police to step in to clear the road.

“They were protesting and blocking the entrance. To protect them from getting run over, our guards tried pleading with them to clear the road but they refused. There was no other option but police had to put them in vehicles to remove them. It happens everywhere else,” Ndege said.

She denied assertions the guards and police were working on instructions from the UNHCR officials.

Refugee Sudi Hadi however accused the agency of mistreatment. “I have lost everything. Ability to get a child and even dignity as a human being. They are treating us worse than you can do to an animal,” she said. 

She says her persistence to have her case sorted out has seen her locked up at Kileleshwa police for days. There was once an attempt to forcibly take her back to Kakuma, but she jumped off a moving car, sustaining injuries that have left scars in her face.

Ikran Elyias, 21, has swollen cheeks as a result of slaps, with her eyes reddened.

“I have been in Kenya for over nine years. The four years I have been waiting for resettlement but as we speak, I don’t know the progress so far,” she said, showing us bandages on her left arm, which was fractured.

“For the nine years I have been here, it’s been hell on earth. I feel betrayed, as those who are supposed to protect are the ones inflicting pain and abusing us. They are always partying and on holiday in the most exotic places with zero time to deal with our cases. I doubt if they have even a little humanity in their hearts,” she said.

Ashwaq Yusuf, 22, arrived in Kenya three years ago. She says her stay has been troubled.

“Interestingly when we go to them for help, they (case officers) always tell us to help ourselves. I have heard it told to my fellow refugees and have also been a victim,” she said.

“The only moment I have ever seen them seem to care is when one girl was gang-raped and left for dead. They tried to act but I wonder why will they want to help you when you almost died.” 

She said inaction from UNHCR is putting them at worse risk than that which they ran away from.

“I have ambitions just like any young person. I need to go back to school. I need to be protected now that I don’t have anyone here. All my hopes are in UNHCR,” she said.

Despite having all the necessary papers, Cherrinet Ariffor says he has often been arrested on orders of UNCHR and his documents snatched. He has been taken to court but was later released when the court confirmed he had all the documents as a refugee.

“All I have been asking is protection against the immense security threat I am facing. But every time I show up at their doorsteps, they tell me to go for HIAS money. If it was livelihood that I wanted, I wouldn’t complain. It’s not money that I need, it’s proper protection,” he said.

“Even though UNHCR comes to work every day to serve refugees, they are inaccessible to us. I have made hundreds of frantic attempts to get their audience but am always ignored.” 

Deka Abdi, who has been in Kenya since 1999 as a refugee, says a visit to UNHCR to inquire on the progress of their cases is always met by a “go, we will call you.”

“I have grown here as a refugee but never gotten help. Still waiting for the said call that never comes,” he said.

Abubakar Abdikadir says he has tried to take his life twice to evade the frustration but ‘unfortunately’ was rescued by his colleagues.

“I see no reason to live if this is what seems to be my destiny,” he said.

NON-TOLERANCE POLICY

However, on constant complaints of verbal and physical abuse by refugees, Ndege said as a matter of policy and practice, UNHCR doesn’t condone or tolerate any abuses or misconduct by their staff.

“Anyone found culpable is held to account. We have informed the refuges of our clear procedures on how to lodge complaints to our office or have them handled directly by the independent Inspector General’s office, which takes everything they say seriously,” she said.

She admitted to having some backlog in processing and handling cases, but blamed it on resource constraints, adding that they have a strategy to fast-track the process to address delays.

“Other issues like resettlement are beyond our control. The criteria for when and who to be resettled is set by the third or receiving country, not us. Thus we don’t dictate; we only make a request at times,” she said.

She further explained that other than Kakuuma and Daadab, the government of Kenya has not provided safe spaces for refugees. They don’t have a place to stay for protection or as they wait for document processing.

“Some believe we can deliver to them services that we don’t provide. We have provided others with options, to convince them through counsellors, but most of them have rejected these options, and the only option they want is resettlement, even when they don’t meet the condition,” she said. 

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