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Nairobi, 4 June 2015 – In a community centre of a Catholic church in Eastleigh, Nairobi's predominantly Somali neighbourhood and trading hub, women in colourful hijab cram into a windowless room. What was supposed to be a meeting with two refugee women turned into a convention of a dozen. They each wanted their voices heard, despite growing pressure in their neighbourhood to hide, to keep silent.
Over the years, the refugee community has gotten used to living in the shadows. Every time the militant group, al-Shabaab, massacres another round of people, the Kenyan government further restricts refugee liberties, scapegoating the survivors of conflict and persecution. Somali refugees live under threat of deportation back home or persistent harassment by Kenyan police.
As signatory to the 1951 UN refugee convention and 1967 protocol, Kenya has protected refugees for decades, but this commitment to protect has waned. Last year, the government Security Laws (Amendment) Bill proposed limiting the number of refugees in the country to 150,000. Though the court eventually threw out the quota proposal, following the recent attack at Garissa University, the government has moved to reinforce this provision.
Deputy President, William Ruto, threatened the closure of the world's largest camp, Dadaab, home to 350,000 to 500,000 refugees, mostly women and children. Government sources claimed the camp has become a "nursery for terrorists", but have not been able to provide any substantive evidence of this link, according to UNHCR spokesperson, Emmanuel Nyabera.
Forced repatriation would be a clear violation of international law. President Uhuru Kenyatta has since "softened" this threat, after meeting with international leaders who emphasised the importance of preserving the rights of refugees in Kenya.
However rhetoric proposing forced return as a durable solution for nearly half a million people already deemed worthy of protection from persecution sets a dangerous precedent in Africa's second largest refugee hosting country.
Dangers of return. For those in Eastleigh, the thought of returning to Somalia provokes feelings of hopelessness. Many know their children will not receive and education in Somalia, where recruitment by al-Shabaab is a constant fear. Members of ethnic minority groups understand return home would possibly mean their persecution or death.
"My children are very young boys; they would be recruited by the army or some militia group if we returned… I'm a single parent, and I've worked so hard to educate my children. I can't lose them to this violence," said Hani*, a refugee community leader and single mom.
"My daughter is in school; if we went back to Somalia she wouldn't be able to continue [studying]. If al-Shabaab saw her studying, she'd be killed," added Waris.
Coesxistence. Echoing the warning given from Kenyan religious leaders, "the real aim of al-Shabaab is to spark religious conflict in Kenya between Christians and Muslims". The Somali women fear division between Christians and Muslims is becoming a reality.
"Here in Kenya, they are targeting Christians. In Somalia, they target us Muslims. Al-Shabaab in Kenya has a different motive: they want to foster hatred and indifference.
It's sad because I love Kenya. The first time I ever experienced peace was when I came here in 1991. After the Garissa attack, many of us in Eastleigh donated blood; now we're afraid of retaliation for helping their [Al-Shabaab] enemy," said Saafi.
Living in a shadow. In addition to the fear of retaliatory violence, refugees in Nairobi face increasing incidences of harassment, arbitrary detention and extortion by Nairobi police.
Most refugees possess protection documents issued by the Department of Refugee Affairs; however, some have expired and most refugees do not have permission to reside outside the camps. Kenyan police take advantage of the situation to harass and extort high sums. According to Hani, in the past month these incidents have risen dramatically.
"Yesterday police came to my home. They asked if I'd heard of the government decision to send refugees back home. Then they asked for money. I didn't have anything so they said they'd come back today, in just a few hours actually. They want money first and documentation second," said Muno*, a single mom.
Two weeks following the Garissa attacks, many dozens of refugees were taken from their homes or from the street, put into lorries, and taken to the police station where they remained in custody until relatives paid bribes for their release.
Twenty-three year-old refugee woman, Amina*, was taking care of her cousins in Nairobi when in the middle of the night police forcibly entered the apartment without a warrant. Still in their pyjamas, Amina, her friend and two young children were forced into a lorry with 66 other refugees, as well as Somali-Kenyans. Those who resisted were beaten with batons, including a 12-year-old Somali refugee. Beatings continued in the cells.
"When I saw the lorry full of people I thought I was dreaming! I'd heard about people being arrested, but I couldn't believe it was happening to me," said Amina, who was detained for 24 hours without food or water.
In the past, refugees have reportedly paid bribes ranging from 1,000 Kenyan shillings to 15,000 Kenyan shillings (11 to 160 US dollars), but the police charged 20,000 Kenyan shillings for Amina's release. Others bribes ranged from 15,000 Kenyan shillings to 100,000 Kenyan shillings.
"My children live in fear; every time a policeman knocks on the door, they know they'll be arrested. They do not fear arrest, they fear the beatings that always come beforehand," said Saafi*, a 31 year old single mother.
Desperate measures. Despite the high levels of harassment and extortion, most refugees in Nairobi believe remaining in Kenya is their only option.
"At least here, when a police officer comes, they won't kill you. They'll ask for money or do other things, but in Somalia they don't want money. They want is to kill us. It's better here anytime," said Waris*, a single mother.
Ultimately, the need for Kenya to strengthen their internal security apparatus with transparency and respect for all within their borders is evident, but the harassment, detention and potential mass movement of one ethnic group surely must be a reason for the international community to mobilise.
*Names have been changed for reasons of security