After enduring months of grenade and other explosive device attacks, Kenya announced new, more stringent controls aimed primarily at Somali refugees inside its borders.
A Kenya parliamentarian criticized the measures, saying they are akin to opening concentration camps, and the United Nations refugee agency said Friday that it is in consultations to preserve refugees' rights.
The UNHCR and government representatives met Friday over the government's new policy, said Emmanuel Nyabera, a UNHCR spokesman. The two sides will meet again Monday, he said.
A government statement from the Department of Refugee Affairs said Kenya hosts refugees from nine countries. But given the security environment in Kenya, it's clear the government is most concerned about the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Somalia. Hosting so many refugees, the statement said, brings many challenges, including "rampant insecurity" in refugee camps and urban areas.
"It is in this public domain that many people have been killed and several more injured with grenade attacks in our streets, churches, buses and in business places," the statement said.
Due to that "unbearable and uncontrollable threat to national security," the government decided that all refugees and asylum seekers from Somalia must return to the large refugee camp complex known as Dadaab, a seemingly endless expanse of refugee housing on the sands of Kenya close to the Somali border. More than 400,000 refugees live in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world.
An explosion went off near a voter registration center in Dadaab on Friday, wounding one person. The camp has seen several small bomb attacks over the last year.
Kenya sent military forces into Somalia in late 2011. Since then, the country has seen a series of small-scale attacks on churches, bars and at public transportation stops. Most attacks are small, but they have occurred every several weeks for nearly a year. Five people were killed and more than a dozen wounded after an attacker threw a grenade outside a mosque in the Somali neighborhood of Nairobi last Friday.
Following that attack, security forces began targeting hundreds of refugees who live in that neighborhood, Eastleigh, which is sometimes referred to as "Little Mogadishu." Hundreds of people of Somali origin have been arrested, many because of their immigration status.
"We know that the government has concerns about security, but the government also knows that the rights of refugees have to be respected," Nyabera, the UNCHR spokesman, said. "We are hopeful that we will come up with a solution, while also appreciating the fact that the government has been very supportive of refugees."
A Kenyan legislator decried the government's new move and labeled it "reactionary." Aden Sugow represents an area of Kenya that hosts more than 100,000 refugees. He said the threat Kenya faces is real but must step up security institutions instead.
"This means that the government is saying refugees should be put in to concentration camps. That can't work and is against international law. Instead the government should pave way for a proper camps set-up to allow for ease of patrol by security personnel. We can't bury our own tails," said Sugow, a retired major general in the Kenyan army.
"Refugees are a reality, one that is with us ... for more years to come before the Somali government gets fully normal."
Kenya hosts refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Sudan and South Sudan. The government statement said all non-Somali refugees must report to the Kakuma refugee camp. The statement said the UNHCR and other aid groups are forbidden from helping refugees living outside Kakuma and Dadaab.
Nyabera said the new policies have not yet been implemented.
Kenyan officials have long expressed hope that Somalia's improving security situation would allow the hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees to safely return. That stance is believed to be one of the reasons Kenya sent troops over the border to fight al-Shabab militants in October 2011.
Associated Press reporter Daud Yussuf contributed to this report.