Screening of Ethnic Somalis: The Cruel Consequences of Kenya’s Passbook System

Published: 5/Sep/1990
Source: Human Rights Watch

The screening of ethnic Somalis in Kenya is a procedure which requires all Kenyans of Somali origin and Somali nationals living in Kenya aged 18 and above to carry a special identification card. It began in November 1989 and was to last three weeks. Instead, it has become an institutionalized procedure whereby all ethnic Somalis are treated as second-class citizens. (See News from Africa Watch, November 17, 1989 and December 6, 1989). The cards are essential for the purpose of all state services and bureaucracy, including education, trade, financial transactions, and land transactions, as well as for internal and external travel.

The government has sought to justify screening on the need to identify “illegal aliens” following the recent influx of refugees escaping the wars in Somalia. But hundreds of people born in Kenya who have no links with Somalia, and Somalis who obtained their residence legitimately, have been accused of obtaining their papers fraudulently and deported. Whatever the real reason, critics of screening believe that the procedure was prompted mainly by the decision of certain senior government officials to cripple major business interests and the desire of the Somali government to ensure the expulsion of businessmen they accuse of financing anti-government activities in Somalia. (There is a long-standing agreement between the two countries to cooperate over anti-government factions operating in the border regions.

Reminiscent of the hated old Kipande system, a special card system used in the colonial era to control the local population, screening has been strongly condemned as unconstitutional and discriminatory by Kenyan lawyers and churchmen and international human rights organizations. Screening has proved to be brutal as well as divisive and is bitterly resented by the Somali community.  As a direct result, many people have been forced to seek refuge in Europe and North America and thousands have fled to neighboring East African countries, living as a stateless and persecuted diaspora subject to further hardship and indignities.  They have been arrested and detained in Tanzania and Burundi.  Scores of long-term residents in Tanzania have been caught up in the sweep, deprived of their livelihood and are currently imprisoned under appalling conditions. At least two thousand Kenyan citizens deported to Somalia are suffering great physical hardship as they are forced to survive without any recognized status—either as legitimate refugees or citizens of either country—and without any adequate humanitarian assistance.

Africa Watch reiterates its strong condemnation of the Kenyan government’s decision to implement this procedure.  Donor governments have failed to criticize this arbitrary and highly discriminatory practice. Instead, they have rejected as refugees the victims who have fled Kenya and neighboring countries.  Africa Watch also notes with great concern the conspicuous failure of international organizations to speak out about this issue or assist the victims, which has caused bewilderment and generated almost as much resentment as that felt towards the Kenyan government itself.

The number of people deported by the Kenyan government as a result of the screening is not known. Official sources claimed to have expelled at least two thousand “illegal aliens” by January 1990 but many more have been deported since January; in addition, this figure does not include the hundreds of people who left to avoid further intimidation.

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Themes: Discrimination, Ethnic/Racial/Religious, Loss and Deprivation of Nationality, Statelessness
Regions: Kenya
Year: 1990