Nearly 150 Congolese Christians, refugees in Kenya from their country’s long-standing civil war, gathered for worship in a Nairobi church on May 4. By nightfall the same day they were huddled in an overcrowded jail. Kenyan police then packed the group into trucks bound for a refugee camp over 300 miles east of Nairobi. Now over a month later, the Congolese Christians remain in the camp—many of them separated from family members who weren’t in church that May morning.
Phillip is one Congolese who stayed home, learning about the raid when his wife called to say Kenyan police were taking her and the other Congolese churchgoers to jail. Phillip (who asked to use a pseudonym to protect his safety) had stayed behind with the couple’s two small children, including an infant. When he arrived at the Nairobi jail, police offered little information, but mentioned security problems in the area. He returned the next day, and informed authorities his wife and others in the group carried documents proving their refugee status in Kenya. Nothing worked.
Instead Phillip’s wife is trapped in a far-flung refugee camp near the Somali border. Stunned, he says he has no idea when he and the couple’s children might see her again: “It is very, very difficult.”
The Congolese dilemma is difficult, but not isolated. Over the last three months, Kenyan authorities have executed a massive security crackdown in Nairobi aimed at curbing Somali militants responsible for a series of brutal attacks that have killed more than 150 people across Kenya in the last 18 months.
The most high profile attack came last September when members of the Somali terror group al-Shabaab besieged the popular Westgate Mall in Nairobi, leaving 67 people dead. A recent pair of deadly attacks erupted June 15-16 in the coastal city of Mpeketoni, as gunmen opened fire on Kenyans, killing at least 60 people.
Witnesses said the attackers targeted non-Muslims by demanding victims recite verses from the Quran, and slaughtering those who failed. Some gunmen went door to door. “They came to our house at around 8 p.m. and asked us in Swahili whether we were Muslims,” one resident told the Associated Press. “My husband told them we were Christians and they shot him in the head and chest.”
Militants in al-Shabaab have vowed escalating attacks since the Kenyan government began sending forces to Somalia to battle the Islamist insurgents in 2011. The group has delivered on its extreme threats, and the Kenyan government has responded with extreme measures.
In late March, the government ordered all refugees living in Kenya to report to one of two sprawling refugee camps in the country, despite a Kenyan court ruling in 2013 rejecting an identical order. (One refugee camp is 300 miles away, and another is more than 500 miles north of Nairobi.)
By early April, Kenyan police began detaining refugees across Nairobi, particularly Somalis living in the city’s Eastleigh section. Forces rounded up as many as 4,000 refugees in a one-month period, turning a Nairobi sports stadium into a giant holding cell.
Many Somalis say they have documents proving their refugee status in the country. Somalis began flooding into Kenya in the early 1990s, as Somalia descended into a brutal civil war. An estimated 50,000 Somali refugees live in Nairobi.
Still, Kenyan police have sent thousands to refugee camps, and deported more than 300 back to Somalia in the last three months. UN officials have warned that some deportees face threats to their lives in Somalia, and have urged the Kenyan government to cease the widespread detainment of vulnerable refugees.
THOUGH THE CRACKDOWN has targeted mostly Somalis, the dragnet also has snagged hundreds of refugees from other nations, including South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Justin Semahoro learned about the Congolese church raid when a family member called from a Nairobi jail. Semahoro fled the DRC’s brutal war in 1998, and came to the United States as a refugee in 2008. Last year, he became a U.S. citizen, and works as a translator at a hospital in St. Louis.
He also keeps close contact with his family living in Nairobi. His brother and sister, and their respective families, have lived in the city as refugees for several years. Semahoro has helped support the families, along with help from his church, New City Fellowship (PCA) in St. Louis—a congregation with a substantial ministry to Congolese and other refugees.
Semahoro says his brother called from Nairobi on May 4 to say police had detained the families. “They never told them what the charges were,” he says.
From a refugee camp in eastern Kenya, a leader of the Congolese church spoke to me by phone, and described the raid: About an hour into the morning worship service on May 4, police arrived and asked everyone in the church to report to the nearby sports stadium to show their documents. The pastor asked police if the congregation could finish worship, but the police loaded the churchgoers into trucks.
Initially, the pastor wasn’t alarmed because he says most congregants—including his own family—carry documents showing their refugee status. But when they reached the stadium, he says police separated the men from the women, and asked women to remove their shoes: “We knew something had changed.”
By nightfall, authorities packed the refugees into an overcrowded jail without food, water, or toilets. Rain poured into the open-air rooms. “It was a horrible, horrible place to be,” says the pastor. (Human Rights Watch has documented deplorable conditions in other jails holding refugees.)
Over the next three days, the group asked to speak to other officials, and pleaded to show their documents. The pastor and other refugees say the officers never looked at their papers. By the fourth night, the police loaded many in the Congolese group onto trucks. “We didn’t know where we were going,” says the pastor. “But on the way, the police told us we were going to Dadaab.”
It was chilling news. More than 300 miles away, and close to the Somali border, Dadaab is one of the largest refugee camps in the world. The camp suffers widespread insecurity and massive overcrowding: Though intended to host about 170,000 refugees, more than 400,000 people live in and around the camp.
The aid group Doctors Without Borders has reported severe conditions in the camp, including extreme shortages of food and shelter, malnourished children, serious illnesses, and violent attacks. In 2011, two women working with the aid group were kidnapped in Dadaab and held captive for nearly two years.
For the Congolese churchgoers, this would be their new home.
Phillip talks with his wife every day by phone, and says she describes conditions in the camp. Since Dadaab is mostly populated by Somali Muslims, including some extremists, the Congolese Christians are careful to keep a distance. They worry they could be in danger, and they don’t pray in groups. (The pastor confirmed these concerns, and said a camp worker warned the Christians about the danger of holding prayer meetings.)
Most of the group lives under handmade, thatched roofs, though some report sleeping with no shelter. They say they have little access to food rations, and mostly purchase their small amounts of food and water. Their possessions remain scant: the clothes they were wearing when they were detained, the phones some had in their pockets, and the Bibles they had carried to church during their final worship service in Nairobi.
Semahoro says some of his family members describe the same conditions when he speaks with them by phone each day, and that his sister has grown sick in the camp. His St. Louis church has been sending aid to help sustain the Congolese families, he says: “Without this, they wouldn’t eat.”
THE UN HAS CALLED ON KENYAN AUTHORITIES to stop mass deportations of documented refugees, but UN officials say they have little power to intervene. The U.S. State Department has condemned the Somali terror attacks, but hasn’t widely addressed the crackdown on refugees.
A State Department official told WORLD the agency had expressed concerns to Kenyan officials about the treatment of refugees, and urged the government to “focus its efforts on actions against specific individuals or groups that pose a threat rather than targeting whole communities.”
The U.S. Embassy has warned Americans traveling in Kenya about the increasing insecurity, and it has heightened security measures at the embassy compound, citing concerns over threats to American interests. The Kenyan government describes the crackdown as a security operation, and interior secretary Joseph Ole Lenku told Kenyan media: “The mop of criminals … will spread across the entire country to remove either illegal aliens or criminals in our country.”
At the same time, many Somalis say Kenyan police have used the crackdown to extort bribes from refugees in exchange for their freedom. Human Rights Watch reported in May that Kenyan security forces had “raided homes, buildings, and shops; looted cell phones, money, and other goods; harassed and extorted residents; and detained thousands.”
One Somali man—who asked not to be identified for safety reasons—said in a phone interview that police officers stop him on a regular basis, though he carries a letter of protection from the UN and an ID issued by the Kenyan government. On the first night of the crackdown, he said police banged on his door, and struck him across the face when he answered. When he asked why the officer hit him, he said the police replied: “Because you are a terrorist.” The young man says he has paid exorbitant fees after police have threatened to arrest him.
Another woman living in Eastleigh said police detained a young Somali family member until she paid for her release, and that officers regularly demand payment from a Somali neighbor. She says police often accuse Somalis in the area of being terrorists, but let them go if they pay a fee. She says the campaign against terrorism has turned into a cover for extortion by some Kenyan police: “It has just become a business.”
That leaves Somalis and other refugees with few options, especially as extreme militant attacks continue against civilian targets and Kenyan security forces battle to stem the carnage. If the current pace continues, attacks could continue to worsen and security conditions could continue to deteriorate, putting even more pressure on the Kenyan government to protect its citizens.
For now, Congolese families separated by the May 4 church raid say they hope to be reunited soon. The Congolese pastor says several mothers are separated from their children, and some of his own children remain in Nairobi. Other Congolese refugees now in Dadaab had immigration appointments at the U.S. Embassy that they aren’t able to keep.
The State Department official said the agency couldn’t comment on specific refugee cases, but added: “We will do all we can to process people in the resettlement pipeline wherever they are.” It’s unclear what that means for the refugees in Dadaab.
For now, Phillip says he’s trying to send an extra set of clothes to his wife in the camp, and he longs to see her again soon: “We are praying to God. We are waiting on God. Maybe God can help us.”