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For many refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, the question “Wapi kipande?” is synonymous with torture. It is a question that has been used by the Kenya Police to extort money from refugees and those from northern Kenya for many decades now. Wapi kipande? simply means, “Where is your ID?”  A question deliberately asked to a group of people whom the police are aware lack the mandatory Kenyan ID cards because of their status as refugees.

Many refugees from the Horn of Africa who have settled in Europe, North America, and the Middle East left Kenya with the horrors of wapi kipande. I have met some and they tell me that the first thing they remember about Kenya is wapi kipande and the abuse they suffered at the hands of the police. I was not spared this abuse. I have spent time in a dingy police cell despite holding a genuine Kenyan ID, having been born and brought up in the country. If you are from northern Kenya, or Somali or Ethiopian or Eritrean, lacking the ubiquitous one hundred shilling bribe can cost you your freedom.

I am from the north and, like refugees from the Horn of Africa, of Afro-Asiatic heritage, distinct from the majority of Kenyans who are from either Bantu or Nilotic communities. Their physical features make these refugees stand out, easy targets for harassment. In a report published in 2013, Human Rights Watch claimed that Kenya Police “raped, tortured, and arbitrarily detained over 1,000 refugees” with little to no action taken by Kenyan authorities to investigate and put a stop to the abuse. To date, nothing has changed.


The harassment of refugees from the Horn of Africa is part of a pattern of discrimination against the people of northern Kenya who live along the border with Somalia and Ethiopia and who are themselves often accused of being “aliens”. Communities living on the border between Kenya and Ethiopia did not end up there by accident. They share cultural traits with communities living in their ancestral homes inside Somalia and Ethiopia. Like the Maasai and Kuria along the Kenya-Tanzania border, and the Luhyas along the Kenya-Uganda border, the northerners found themselves on either side of the border after the partitioning of Africa at the Berlin conference of 1884/5 that established most of the African borders as we know them today.

The Maasai, Kuria, and Luhya communities residing on the Kenyan side have been easily accepted and are treated much more favourably than northerners are. Discrimination against those from the north appears to be inspired by a racist agenda that has affected generations of their kin. For many decades now, there has been a policy of vetting the youth from this region before they are issued with Kenyan ID cards. Apart from those of Arab heritage, youth from other parts of Kenya do not undergo this vetting.

The ID

For the youth, and the people of northern Kenyan in general, the vetting process for the issuance of an ID card or a passport is long, arduous, and intrusive. And it can take years. Delays in the process have been known to impact college starting dates for the youth, who as a result are locked out of employment and are unable to open bank accounts or even own a mobile phone.

The discrimination of people from northern Kenya has now extended to their being termed terrorists by security forces.  Several Somalis and others perceived to be Somali or of Horn of Africa descent have allegedly been kidnapped and disappeared by the police. The blanket terming of northerners as terrorists now also informs Kenya’s policy on asylum and refugees.

In mid-2021, the Kenyan government ordered the closure of Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in the north of the country for “harbouring” and “breeding” terrorists without providing evidence to back its claims.  In a move that was bound to breach international law, the government ordered the forced repatriation of Somali refugees back to their country of origin despite the continued instability and insecurity in Somalia, which made it unsafe for them to return.

For the youth, and the people of northern Kenyan in general, the vetting process for the issuance of an ID card or a passport is long, arduous, and intrusive.

Kenya is a signatory to the Refugee Convention of 1951 and the 1967 Protocol. The terms of the Convention are legally binding and a breach of any of its norms is a breach of international law on the protection of refugees and asylum seekers. The forceful repatriation of refugees in the Dadaab and Kakuma camps, had it gone ahead, would have fallen foul of the “non-refoulement” rule, a core principle of the Refugee Convention that stipulates that refugees cannot be returned to a country where they would face persecution based on “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.

In the last few years, Kenya has demonstrated its policy of discrimination against refugees and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa in the way it handles Ethiopian nationals; they are described as aliens and treated like criminals. The humanitarian crisis created by the war in Ethiopia has forced many Ethiopians to flee to safer countries such as Kenya and Sudan. But many of those who have fled to Kenyan have not been processed in accordance with the Refugee Convention but have instead been jailed and fined before being forcefully returned to Ethiopia despite the ongoing war and the political instability.

A lack of asylum processing centres on the Kenya-Ethiopia border and the non-recognition of Ethiopian refugees has forced them to turn to people smugglers. The result is a spike in human trafficking activities along Kenya’s northern border.

When war broke out in Ethiopia, Kenya did not prepare for the influx of refugees and asylum seekers that would cross its borders from Ethiopia and also from Somalia and Sudan.  Instead, it left the door open for people smugglers who have been operating with impunity as they easily smuggle people into Kenya despite the many police checks between the border towns and the capital. Corrupt immigration officers and police are paid to turn a blind eye to the people smugglers. When they are arrested, individuals who, in the legal sense, should be free and registered either as refugees or as asylum seekers and offered protection under international law instead end up in prison. Jailing and fining innocent refugees only ends up putting more pressure on Kenya’s criminal justice system.

Terrorism is also used as an excuse to return “Ethiopian aliens” found in the country. Only recently, local media reported that residents of Kenol, near Thika town, turned on Ethiopian nationals who had just survived a road accident, suspecting them to be terrorists. In the Kenol incident, initial reports suggested that an official of the Kenya Defence Forces was behind the wheel accompanied by another armed soldier who fled the scene after the accident. The picture now emerging is that the smuggling of people into Kenya is the work of government officials working in cahoots with organized criminals. The absence of refugee reception and processing centres at border towns and Kenya’s disregard for the Refugee Convention have created a thriving people-smuggling business between the Horn of Africa and Kenya.

Designated terrorists

The blanket terming of Kenyan northerners and people from the Horn of Africa as terrorists seems to be an extension of the discriminatory policies towards people from the north or those with origins in the north. This discrimination plays into the hands of terrorists who capitalize on the lack of proper procedures and policies for processing those fleeing conflict in the Horn of Africa.  It also plays into the hands of corrupt government officials who extort and harass northerners and refugees for money, or sell ID cards and passports to would-be terrorists for monetary gain.

In the last few years, Kenya has fast-tracked citizenship for the Makonde and Shona communities of Kenya, originally from Tanzania/Mozambique and Zimbabwe, respectively. They arrived in Kenya later than the communities in northern Kenya who are still waiting to be accepted as Kenyan citizens. Children born in Kenya of Somali and Ethiopian refugees who are now in their 30s qualify for Kenyan citizenship under international law, but they have yet to be regularized yet a new policy offers fast-tracked citizenship to investors to spur Kenya’s economy. It is unclear whether the many Somalis and Ethiopians who have heavily invested in Kenya will find it easier to obtain Kenyan citizenship or whether they will still face prejudice and discrimination. Refugees in Kenya, particularly those from Somalia and Ethiopia, have contributed immensely to the country’s economy.  The failure to regularize their status affects not just the refugees’ socio-economic progress but that of Kenya as well because of lack of a proper and effective asylum and migration policy.

The labelling of northerners as terrorists has also led to human rights abuses, with residents facing arbitrary detention or kidnapping by “security forces”, never to be seen again. It is also a label that has alienated northerners, who are treated with suspicion by non-northerners and non-Muslim communities.

Forcing refugees underground is potentially opening the country to transnational crime with illegal arms, drugs, and other contraband goods filtering into the country. However, corruption is also a contributing factor to transnational crime as government officials are known to accept bribes to turn a blind eye to people smugglers and organized criminals. Blaming northerners and refugees from the Horn of Africa for insecurity and illegal trade is convenient when the actual root of the problem is to be found in Kenya’s systemic failures.

It is unclear whether the many Somalis and Ethiopians who have heavily invested in Kenya will find it easier to obtain Kenyan citizenship.

An effective and fair asylum and migration policy would separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak, and help the country to create a database of bona fide refugees. Granting citizenship to long-term refugees from the Horn of Africa is a sure way of integrating them into Kenyan society and a means of protection from harassment by the police and other corrupt government agencies.

The country also needs to speed up the registration of births in the north to capture and maintain data for Kenyan citizens born in the country. This is one scheme that would save time and resources, both and for applicants of ID cards and passports from the north and for the government. Undocumented youth is a demographic that is unable to contribute to the economy or even participate in civic duties such as the upcoming general elections.

A socio-economic malaise born of discriminatory racist prejudice should have been a thing of the past by now. The diversity of tribes in Kenya is not static and is bound to expand as the country progresses. The recent inclusion of the Makonde and the Shona is proof that the ethnography of the country is open-ended. This must now also include refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia who have made Kenya their home for many years and continue to contribute economically. That acceptance may just help in bringing peace to the north and putting an end to the discrimination and human rights abuses suffered by northerners. The move would also shore up Kenya’s standing on the international stage as a tolerant country and one that respects its international obligations regarding citizens of other countries.