NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Young children are being left behind in Kenya while their parents are deported or sent to camps, rights groups said, as police have rounded up thousands of immigrants in an anti-terrorist operation.
Kenyan police have arrested more than 4,000 immigrants and refugees, many of them ethnic Somalis, since the operation began more than a month ago.
Refugee rights groups reported finding several children alone after their parents had been arrested in the swoop to remove “illegal aliens and criminals” who authorities have linked to a growing number of attacks in Kenya.
"A number of people have been arrested and taken to the camps while their children have been left behind unattended even as young as three months old," Grace Omweri of the charity Kituo cha Sheria, which provides legal aid to refugees, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"They (protection officers) found a nine-year-old who had been left with her siblings who are twins and they are less than a year old."
At the start of April, Kenyan police started arresting people without identity documents in the capital's Somali-dominated suburb of Eastleigh following a blast in the area on March 31 which killed six people.
Somalis have faced an increasingly hostile environment in Kenya following a string of attacks by Somalia-based militant group al Shabaab on Kenyan soil – most infamously their deadly assault on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in September. Kenya hosts around half a million Somali refugees following its neighbour’s collapse into civil war in 1991.
ARREST AT A CHURCH
The government has arrested and deported hundreds of immigrants of other nationalities living in Kenya illegally, including Ethiopians, South Sudanese, Congolese and Cameroonians, rights groups said.
In the 10 days up to May 6, the Refugee Consortium of Kenya (RCK) said it received reports of 317 arrests around the country, as well as extortion of bribes from refugees with legitimate papers by law enforcement officers. It said 15 Ugandans had been deported in that period and 135 Ethiopians presented to court were set to be deported after serving jail terms or paying fines.
"The government has yet to provide a clear link between hosting refugees and terrorism," the RCK said in a statement.
The biggest mass arrest was of 146 Congolese refugees attending a church service in Nairobi on May 4.
"They were initially held at the Kasarani police station and after verification and screening at the Kasarani Stadium some of them were relocated to Dadaab refugee camp," RCK said.
Kasarani sports stadium is the main centre where screening has been conducted. The United Nations refugee agency and other rights groups have been barred from accessing the stadium.
As a result of the round up, more than 200 refugees and asylum seekers were sent to Dadaab refugee camp in April, the United Nations refugee agency reported in emailed updates about the overcrowded camp on Kenya’s northern border.
"The refugees and asylum seekers were transported directly from Kasarani stadium to Dadaab without notice to family members," it said on April 23.
"Many families have been split, including children separated from parents."
The new arrivals included a 15-year-old Kenyan national and people married to Kenyans, who have the right to live in the country through marriage, it added.
People were not allowed to collect their belongings and had to be issued with blankets, jerrycans and mosquito nets.
On May 6, the High Court barred the removal of a group of Somali refugees who filed a private petition challenging the government’s March 25 order that all urban refugees be taken to camps due to "emergency security challenges".
The case, which has the potential to lead to similar petitions, will be heard on May 27.
Last year, the High Court found a 2012 order to encamp all refugees illegal.
The police spokeswoman was not immediately available for comment.
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