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Foreigner registration crisis grips UNHCR office in Kenya

July 11, 2005
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UNHCR’s large refugee status determination office in Nairobi has been besieged by a migrant registration crisis since the Kenyan government demanded that all foreigners in the country register themselves, bringing more than 24,000 new applications in three months.

A Kenyan Minister announced in April that all undocumented foreigners must register themselves by the end of June. On 30 June, the government extended the deadline until the middle of August. Media reports quoted Immigration Minister Linah Kilimo saying: “I am giving them another one and a half months, to the 15th of August after which if you are found on the street without any documents you will be deported.”

UNHCR officials said that new registrations increased from around 200 a month in March to more than 1000 a month in May. Reuters reported that 4000 people approached UNHCR-Nairobi in a single day on 22 June.  Around 500 applied the next day. Most of the new registrations are apparently by Ethiopians, though applications from Rwandans, Burundians, and Congolese have also been numerous.

The wave of new applications brought UNHCR’s normal RSD procedures to a standstill and overwhelmed the Nairobi office’s capacity. UNHCR officials said the crisis was mainly over Kenyan immigration policy, not refugee protection, but that Kenyan officials had not set clarified where else foreigners should register.

Kenyan authorities are reportedly now refusing to recognize previously issued refugee documents and UNHCR letters. On 28 June, the Refugee Consortium of Kenya called on the government to extend the registration deadline to the end of the year.

Nairobi was UNHCR’s third largest refugee status determination office in 2004, receiving more than 9000 new applications, more than double the year before. Kenya has long been one of the leading sites of refugee resettlement processing, especially to the United States.

Refugee policy in Kenya has recently attracted criticism by Human Rights Watch, and in a recent book by Barbara Harrell-Bond and Guglielmo Verdirame.

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