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Thousands flock to UNHCR in Nairobi ahead of government deadline

Thousands flock to UNHCR in Nairobi ahead of government deadline

A week before the cut-off date for all foreigners in Kenya to register themselves, thousands of people have swamped UNHCR's office in Nairobi hoping to be registered as asylum seekers.
23 June 2005
Pleas for help outside the UNHCR office in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

NAIROBI, June 23 (UNHCR) - Thousands of people have flocked to the UN refugee agency in Nairobi ahead of a government deadline for all foreigners in Kenya to register themselves. UNHCR has stressed that it is an immigration issue - not an asylum issue - that should be dealt with by the authorities.

Some 4,000 people, mostly Ethiopians, approached the UNHCR office in Nairobi for registration yesterday. Today saw the arrival of more than 500 others from the Great Lakes region, including Rwandans, Burundians and Congolese nationals. This is a sharp rise for an office that usually receives about 50 asylum seekers a day.

"From January to April this year, we were receiving around 215 newly-arrived families a month," noted UNHCR Representative in Kenya, George Okoth-Obbo. "In May, the number increased to 1,100 new families. In the first two weeks of June, we received 1,300 families. The situation almost went out of control on June 22 when we received some 4,000 individuals."

The cause - an announcement in early April by the Minister in charge of immigration and refugee affairs in Kenya that undocumented foreigners in the country had up to the end of June to register themselves.

Among the thousands who turned up at UNHCR's door were some people who were already registered with the agency, while others had been rejected for asylum. The majority, however, were people approaching UNHCR for the first time. Some of the crowd tried to push their way into the office, others camped overnight in front of the office so that they could beat the queue in the morning.

"I came here at 11 pm last night so that I can be registered, but now I cannot enter the office," said Halima, carrying a baby on her back. She has been living in Nairobi for four years since leaving Ethiopia, but has never approached UNHCR for registration.

"We are ignorant, we do not know where to go. I cannot go back to my home because of war," said Samwel Habonimana, a Burundian refugee and father of five as he braved the current cold weather in Nairobi. He has been living in Nairobi for the past seven years.

The thousands-strong crowd has brought UNHCR operations in the Kenyan capital to a virtual standstill. Most of the staff members have been deployed to control the situation. Eight desks have been opened to attend to the crowd. Previously-arranged asylum appointments have been rescheduled. For the new arrivals, UNHCR workers are taking their names, pictures and nationality before giving them acknowledgement slips indicating that they have approached the agency. UNHCR does not have the capacity to carry out any status determination procedure of this scale.

Several meetings were held with government officials, but a solution had not been reached by the end of Wednesday.

"This is fundamentally an immigration issue, not a refugee issue," said Okoth-Obbo. "Even if refugee elements may be presumed, we are concerned that the refugee system alone is now being burdened with the outcome of the government's policy announcement, a situation that it is important to alter urgently."

Swarming crowds in front of UNHCR Nairobi.

He added that UNHCR has asked the authorities to designate a government machinery as the principal point to which the unregistered foreigners should be instructed to report, while UNHCR would play its mandated role within those arrangements.

"We also urged the government to extend the deadline to allow for better management of the situation as a whole," said Okoth-Obbo.

By Emmanuel Nyabera