Today Kenyans go to the polls to elect a new President. The campaign has focused on corruption, major infrastructure projects, and spiraling costs of living, while international media interest has focused squarely on the prospect of electoral violence. The issue of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Kenya has received limited attention, yet much has changed since the last election in March 2013. Refugees have become a red-button issue and the results on Tuesday will have important consequence for those seeking refuge in Kenya.
The most immediate issue faced by refugees, in common with others, is the risk of violence. The violence following the December 2007 election has cast a long shadow. With over 1,000 dead and over 600,000 displaced, 2007-2008 marked the worst electoral violence in recent Kenyan history, although it was far from unique.
Tensions remain high as voting approaches. The torture and murder of Chris Msando, a senior employee of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), has shaken the country, and follows the break-in by a gunman to Deputy President William Ruto home last week. Preparing for the worst, the National Police Service has marshaled 180,000 personnel from other agencies in advance of Tuesday’s vote.
On Friday, the office of the opposition, the National Super Alliance (NASA), was raided. With polls indicating a close contest between President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Vice President Raila Odinga, a narrow defeat for either candidate could lead to accusations of voter fraud and a “stolen” election.
Odinga, who lost the 2007 election by a narrow margin, has recently given assurances there will be no violence if the elections are conducted in a free and fair manner. Recent events raise concerns over whether the campaign or election can be characterised as either free or fair.
Kenyan politics have become increasingly security-focused since the last election, with refugees amongst those targeted. The attacks by al Shabaab on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September 2013 saw 67 people die, while the Garissa University attack in April 2015 was the country’s deadliest since the 1998 bombing of the United States’ embassy.
Operation Usalama Watch, a 2014 counterterrorism operation, scapegoated refugees living in Nairobi. In the years since, 65,000 refugees have been repatriated to Somalia, with many returned involuntarily to unsafe parts of the country.
Refugees, particularly in Kenya’s cities, remain vulnerable to violence. Recent attacks in South Africa have shown how anti-migrant protests can quickly descend into xenophobic violence, while in Germany there are around 10 attacks on refugees every day.
If violence erupts in the wake of Kenya’s elections, refugees could be at the receiving end of similar attacks. In Nairobi’s informal settlements, where refugees from nearby African countries live alongside Kenyans, police protection can be scarce, while in neighborhoods such as Eastleigh, well known for its high density of Somalis, refugees have been targeted previously.
The election will have longer-term implications for refugees in Kenya. President Kenyatta, currently leading in polls, has been clear in stating he wants the number of refugees in the country drastically reduced. Earlier this year he reiterated publicly his plans to close Dadaab, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, despite opposition from Kenya’s High Court.
Kenyatta’s running mate, William Ruto, has previously called Dadaab a “centre of radicalisation” and “terrorist training” ground. Kenyatta’s victory could be seen as further support for the closure of the camp and the repatriation of refugees to Somalia.
Odinga has spoken of Kenya’s obligation to assist refugees. Last year he criticized the government’s plans to close Dadaab and return large numbers of refugees.
If elected, however, Odinga is unlikely to halt repatriation efforts. He may eschew some of the scapegoating that has become commonplace and step back from promises to swiftly close Dadaab, but he has previously proposed establishing camps within Somalia to stem the movement of would-be refugees.
Kenya’s role as a major refugee-hosting country is unlikely to abate in the near future. Though efforts might intensify to repatriate refugees to Somalia, continued conflict will likely result in new arrivals in the country. The 73,242 South Sudanese who have arrived in Kenya since December 2013 are likely to be joined by others, as conflict continues, and strain on resources in Uganda sees yet more move on.
Whoever wins the election, a focus must be placed on upholding Kenya’s obligations to protect refugees, with such protection needed from both forced repatriation by the state and spontaneous attacks under the cover of electoral violence.