No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark, says poet and activist Warsan Shire in her book Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth.
To Oromos and Ogadens, home — Ethiopia — has become a shark’s mouth that has swallowed their freedom, justice, dignity and lives.
To escape the violence, jail or at worst death, many have opted to flee, to seek refuge across the region.
However, for those fleeing to Kenya or other neighboring countries for asylum, severe dangers keep stalking them miles away from their persecutor.
This is thanks to the indifference of the United Nation Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) and the government’s Refugee Affairs Secretariat (RAS).
Ongoing protests in Oromia region have been met with brutal crackdowns by Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s government.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front party, which has been in power since 1991, is accused of high-handedness against the dissenting voices, forcing thousands to flee the country.
But even outside Ethiopian territory, the immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers are never safe, either, as they are routinely targeted and subjected to surveillance, harassment, violence, before they are arrested and deported back.
In October last year, police arrested 40 Ethiopians at Uhuru Park and charged them at the Kibera law courts with unlawful assembly and being in Kenya illegally.They were arrested while protesting, following clashes that had left at least 50 dead in Oromia.
Oromo refugees, asylum seekers and those familiar with refugee documentation and protection spoke to the Star on condition of anonymity for their own safety, and what they revealed painted a picture of systematic and deliberate frustration, neglect and despair.
About 16 sources met this reporter at various locations, including at the official UNCHR and RAS operation centres in Nairobi.
Attempts to get the police, RAS, as well Ethiopian embassy officials to respond to the allegations were futile, while the UNCHR denied them.
“I came to Nairobi after spending close to 10 years in different prisons, including the famous Kaliti Prison in Ethiopia. Some of my friends didn’t make it. They are still languishing in jail. Others have been killed or just disappeared,” Semih (not his real name) said.
At Maekelawi Detention Centre, he met Osman Kadir and Wario Bariso who had been abducted from Daadab Refugee camp and sent back to Ethiopia, whereas at Kaliti, he met engineers Teftahim Chemueda and Msefin Abebe, who were abducted in Nairobi and are now on death row.
“I thought I will be protected and my safety guaranteed after successful registration or even resettled externally upon my case’s determination. Shock on me. That hasn’t happened because I don’t have money to bribe UNCHR officials to fast-track my case,” he said.
Despite putting his case for registration and documentation to UNCHR office and RAS six months ago, he said all he has been told every time he inquires about the case is that it will be acted upon and he will be informed.
“I am now in limbo. But I fear that if I get registered or seek resettlement without paying the bribe to officers, they will blow up my cover. If Ethiopian security forces, which have a massive presence here, know that I am here, they will abduct me and I will face the same fate of more than 100 of my colleagues, who have been abducted by combined Kenyan and Ethiopian forces, tortured and sent back to dentition in Ethiopia,” Semih said.
Even Kenyans perceived to be working with Oromos are not safe, he added, saying in one of the detention facilities, he found Wario Tatesa and Jaldesa Wako, Kenyans who were facing six and 15-year jail terms. They had been abducted inside Kenyan territory and taken to Addis Ababa.
Women who spoke to the Star said their cases are even worse, as failure to give in to sexual advances from the officers meant their cases are not registered or handled faster, which leaves them more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and harassment.
“I refused to give in to some UNCHR officers who demanded that I sleep with them so they can prepare my paperwork. Now I am here without official recognition. I ran away from Ethiopia because I wanted to breathe a fresh air of dignity, not to come and be used as an object and put to worse emotional torture,” Melod (not her real name) told the Star.
She said she knew some of the women who had paid off with their bodies to have the papers processed and even resettled in Western countries.
The frustration and desperation, she said, has seen some give up and no longer want to subject themselves to refugee status determination. They have instead opted to be house girls, bartenders or own small businesses to make ends meet.
“The lucky one are treated as ordinary workers. The unlucky ones are taken advantage of and paid meager salaries just because they are refugees. Others are smuggled out under the pretext of looking for opportunities but they end up as sex slaves in Europe and other regions in the world,” she said.
UN’S ‘ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY’
Details from already registered refugees and a source familiar with both Refugee Affairs Secretariat and the UN refugee agency at Shauri Moyo said the agencies run a well coordinated syndicate that coerces and lures refugees to pay bribes, by frustrating them through unnecessary bureaucratic delays and threats of giving them out to police if they fail to comply.
“Officials at both the UNCHR and the Kenya government are double faced and in an unholy alliance with persecutors of the asylum seekers. They have made it difficult for refugees and asylum seekers and pushed them to desperation,” the source said.
“Those who succeed to register bribe or give into sexual demands.”
The UN refugee agency, through its communications head Yvonne Ndege, denied allegations of bribery and sexual exploitation, urging us to provide more information.
“UNCHR has zero tolerance policy to sexual exploitation and abuse. It is unacceptable behaviour and prohibited conduct for all UNCHR staff and its affiliated workforce,” she said. (See comprehensive response from the UNCHR at the end of this article).
However, another source familiar with UNCHR operations said a large number of those hired to protect refugees and guarantee their rights seem to be here on vacation. Others are just making money and do not care about their responsibility.
“They are treating refugees and asylum seekers the way you would treat your herd of goats. You keep them contemplating on what you can milk from them,” the source said.
“They can opt to hold them in limbo with no documentation so that others they collaborate with can use them as a cash cow, or just hand them over to the mafia system (in camps). All they are after is to line up their pockets, not serve humanity. This explains why some UNCHR officers and their partners have become stinking rich. If you do a lifestyle audit on some, you will be shocked.”
HOW EXPLOITATION WORKS
Bribes of about Sh15,000 to Sh30,000 are demanded by either UNCHR or RAS officers before a file for registration and documentation and even resettlement is processed.
The money is paid in cash, mostly negotiated and delivered through brokers, who include community leaders and other persons who hang around registration centres, sources said.
“Rarely do the officers allow direct cash payments. In fact, the brokers always tell us to call our friends or relatives around so as we can fund-raise and pay the illegal fees,” Melak (not his actual name) said.
“But even with the registration, we are never free. We are stopped randomly in the streets by police and threatened to be handed to Ethiopian police if we don’t buy our freedom. Pangani is a notorious police station, where we are normally taken and never booked,” he added.
Those who don’t pay, maybe because they have no friends in Nairobi to help raise the bribe are locked up at Industrial Area police, some charged for being in the country illegally and some quietly sent back to Ethiopia through the Moyale border, he said.
Those who register at the Shauri Moyo agency are given a three-week movement permit, which allows them to move back to the camp either at Kakuma or Daadab, which is high-risk, especially for political asylum seekers.
The situation is complicated by the fact that the joint UNCHR/RAS Committee on Exemptions hasn’t met since May.
The committee receives and approves requests from refugees and asylum seekers who want to be exempted from residing in the designated areas (camps).
Kenya is implementing an encampment policy, where all new arrivals are registered with Kalobeyei address, even though all the registrations are done in Nairobi. All refugees are also required to reside in refugee camps, unless they have been given an exemption permit.
“With this committee not meeting and granting the exemption permits, those given movement permits overstay their three weeks, exposing them to extortion rackets, and some are even charged for violating immigration laws. Even though the committee is not meeting, those who bribe get their exemption permits anyway,” a source said.
Another source whose three family members were killed in Ethiopia last year said he lodged his case with committee for consideration, arguing that accepting to go to Dadaab or Kakuuma was tantamount to giving himself out to Ethiopian forces that patrol and hunt down their targets in the camps with ease.
“To date my case has not been handled. I overstayed the movement permit, now I prefer being here in Nairobi illegally as I look for ways out than taking myself to the slaughterhouse that is the camps,” he said.
“I can no longer go to church, social gatherings or even interact with other refugees. I am safer alone than with the rest because they are under massive surveillance.”
Human Rights Watch senior researcher Felix Horne, who has been working on Ethiopian refugees, acknowledges the pain the refugees and asylum seekers are facing.
Currently, he said, an Ethiopian asylum seeker in Kenya can take over two years just to get an initial refugee status determination interview.
Despite Kenya having a responsibility to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are not returned to a place where there is a risk of torture, he said, their research shows the contrary.
Cases of abductions and threats against Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers are not limited to Kenya, he said.
Community leaders, social media activists, opposition politicians, and refugee protection workers have been harassed in other countries.
“We have documented abductions of Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers from Uganda, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia and elsewhere. It is a strategy the Ethiopian government uses all across the region to ensure refugees are fearful of opposing or criticising the Ethiopian government and of providing support to opposition groups,” Horne said.
“In Kenya, it is clear that Ethiopian agents use Kenyan police, primarily through monetary payments, to facilitate harassment and arrest of Ethiopian refugees they are interested in. In private, some Kenyan police told HRW that they were offered cash payments by Ethiopian Embassy officials specifically to arrest Ethiopians.”
A source said personal details of some refugees are gotten from UNCHR records and given to Ethiopian forces by officials of the agency, adding that tracking has been made worse because the hotline services are outsourced.
UN refugee agency head of communication Yvonee Ndege response
What are the specific protections in place to ensure refugees and asylum seekers enjoy their rights, free from being threaten, abducted and refouled back to their countries where they risk torture and other violations?
Kenya, being signatory to the main legal instruments relating to the protection of refugees, has established systems and procedures to manage refugees and asylum-seekers in the country. Any individual who wishes to seek-asylum in Kenya can do it in contacting the competent authorities (Refugee Affairs Secretariat) or UNHCR. Any registered asylum-seeker or refugee is protected by the Kenyan State against refoulemement to his country of origin or to any country where his life or security could be at risk. The principle of non-refoulement is spelled out in the refugee Conventions as well as in the 2006 Refugee Act that is in force in Kenya. Asylum-seekers and refugees do enjoy rights as defined in these legal instruments as well as all the basic human rights including the right to physical security.
There are numerous cases of those who have been refouled back illegally, as a refugee agency what steps are being taken to pursue these cases and ensure that in future Kenya and Ethiopian security doesn't return them to persecution?
Non-refoulement is the cornerstone of the refugee protection regime. There are however exceptions to this principle if the authorities consider that an individual represents a danger to the security of the country or if, after been convicted of a serious crime, the individual constitutes a danger to the community. UNHCR was informed a couple of month ago of the refoulement of an Ethiopian individual who had been residing in Kenya for a long time. After thorough verification, UNHCR could not confirm his status as a refugee. In the event that UNHCR establish that an Ethiopian asylum-seeker or a refugee has been refouled to Ethiopia, the matter would be taken up with the competent authorities. Similar demarches have been done on behalf of two Sudanese refugees earlier this year as well as a group of Somali refugees who were deported to Somalia in May.
In our multiply interviews with victims, both registered and unregistered refugees and asylum seekers they accuse UNCHR officers of exploiting them sexually (for the girls) and financially too in exchange of expedited registration and resettlement those who don't pay or give in to sexual advances are met with indifference, their cases are ignored or not registered at all, what are your thoughts about these allegations,have they been brought to your attention, what action has been taken either to investigate or hold culprits to account?
UNHCR has a zero tolerance policy to sexual exploitation and abuse and treats such allegations very seriously. Sexual exploitation and abuse is unacceptable behavior and prohibited conduct for all UNHCR staff and its affiliated workforce. Sexual exploitation and abuse threatens the lives of people that we are to serve a protect. Sexual exploitation and abuse undermines discipline, and damages the reputation of UNHCR. Any such allegation is referred to UNHCR’s independent Inspector General’s Office and will be investigated. All investigations are carried out by expert investigators. All victims of sexual exploitation and abuse are entitled to safe and confidential assistance. If the victim is a child, special considerations for the protection and support to the child are needed. Where immediate medical assistance is needed, the victim will be referred to the near medical service.
Victims we spoke accuse some UNCHR staff for working in cahoot with Ethiopian forces, to which they feed them with personal details of all those in their records used to track down the specific Oromos and Ogaden refugee and asylum seekers by Ethiopian security agencies, they are abducted and taken back to Ethiopia. This has made those already registered refugees and asylum seekers live in fear and even has discouraged those not registered to seek formal recognition and protection, is this allegation known to you, what are your thoughts?
UNHCR would treat such accusations very seriously. UNHCR is unaware of the specific allegations to which you are referring. Please can you provide more detail?
There are also accusation where cases that are supposed to be resettled are exchanged and sold to undeserving people, how accurate is this?
UNHCR would treat such accusations very seriously. UNHCR is unaware of the specific allegations to which you are referring. Can you give more detail?
They have also complained of the hotline number which UNCHR has outsourced as well the payments, which they claim leaves them exposed and at most is unresponsive when in emergency, does this mean the UNCHR system isn't working and that you have outsourced responsibility?
UNHCR has established a Hotline to enable refugees to access information about their rights and entitlements without having to present themselves to a UNHCR office. The Hotline can also be used to make complaints or report misconduct. The Hotline is a toll free number. The first line operators are employees of a UNHCR contractor. The first line operators speak multiple languages and are trained on how to answer basic queries. For callers who seek information about their individual cases, the first line operators are trained to know how to refer the caller to a UNHCR staff who can answer/resolve their query. The Hotline has been operational for five months and over 14,000 calls have been satisfactorily resolved. Community leaders have welcomed the existence of the Hotline. UNHCR has noted areas where improvement can be made and is taking steps to implement such improvements – including the intention to make the Hotline available 24 hours per day.
Joint committee on exemption permits for those who want to stay in Nairobi either for health or security reasons hasn't meet since May, what are your observations about this and what are you doing as UNCHR to make sure it convenes to avoid extortion rings that it has created against those in Nairobi?
Issuing exemption permits is a matter for the Government – not UNHCR. UNHCR is working with the Refugee Affairs Secretariat of the Government to ensure that an effective, efficient and fair process is put in place.
Observers argue that failure to have registration desks at border points has exposed refugees and asylum seekers to exploitation by smugglers and security agencies, what should be the ideal situation and why isnt there a registration desk at entry points?
The Refugee Affairs Secretariat has a presence is Dadaab, Kakuma, Nairobi, Mombasa and Eldoret. It may not be possible or realistic for RAS to deploy registration staff at all the crossing points considering that some individuals enter Kenya outside the official border points. Please contact RAS about this point. RAS and UNHCR do work very closely with the immigration authorities to ensure that individuals who enter Kenya and seek asylum at the border are however directed to the right entities for further processing. Efforts are being made to build the capacity of the immigration services so the border management systems are designed to accommodate and handle appropriately the individuals seeking asylum. It actually happens very regularly that the immigration services do signal the presence of asylum-seekers to RAS or UNHCR so arrangement can be made to relocate them to the camps or elsewhere. It appears that most cases, the smuggling routes are set-up in the countries of origin.