GENEVA (Reuters) - Somali refugees are being harassed and rounded up in Kenya and the semi-autonomous enclave of Puntland in the wake of deadly bombings by al Shabaab Islamist rebels in Uganda, the United Nations said on Friday.
Authorities in Puntland sent back more than 900 displaced Somalis to the conflict zone in central Somalia this week, but so far Kenya has not deported Somalis who can prove they have refugee status, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said.
“Against the backdrop of recent terrorist attacks, we have noted growing numbers of incidents of xenophobia, round ups and deportations of displaced Somalis,” Melissa Fleming, UNHCR spokeswoman, told a news briefing in Geneva.
“We are calling on the Puntland authorities to halt these push-backs,” she added.
People fleeing fighting in southern and central Somalia need international protection and forced returns to that part of the country place their lives at “grave risk”, according to UNHCR.
“We fear those who have fled for very good reason, young men in the age group between 18 and 25, are very often targeted for recruitment by al Shabaab,” Fleming said.
Al Shabaab, a hardline Islamist rebel group with links to al Qaeda, controls much of southern Somalia, bordering northeastern Kenya, and is fighting to topple the Western-backed government in the Horn of Africa nation.
Somali Islamist insurgents have killed two African Union peacekeepers in fighting in the capital, Mogadishu, a spokesman for the AU peacekeeping force said on Friday .
Coordinated bomb attacks on the Ugandan capital Kampala this month were the first claimed by Somali rebels outside Somalia, although there have been fears for some time in Kenya that the violence could spill over their long and porous border.
“We are receiving frequent reports of verbal and physical harassment in (Somali) communities as well as arrests, arbitrary detention, extortion and even push-backs of Somali refugees,” Fleming said, referring to the situation in the region.
In the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, nearly 2,000 Somalis have approached UNHCR offices in the past week to register as refugees, she said.
“So there is this clear desire by Somalis to make sure they have the right documents so they can prove they have refugee status,” she said. “All indications are that once they can prove they are refugees, they are being released (in Kenya).”
Conditions in Somalia are increasingly dire, with 18,000 people fleeing violence this month alone, according to UNHCR. At least 112 people were killed and 250 wounded in the period.
More than 1.4 million are displaced within Somalia and more than 600,000 Somali refugees live in neighbouring countries.
“As a result of the displacement, hospitals in Mogadishu are overburdened at the moment and unable effectively to cope with an increased number of trauma cases being recorded,” World Health Organisation spokesman Paul Garwood told reporters.
Two Mogadishu hospitals have recorded nearly 200 cases of cholera in the past two weeks, he said. The deadly disease is spread by contaminated food or water and poor hygiene.
“There are obvious concerns about sanitation and access to clean, safe water and these cases provide an extra burden on the few available health facilities which are under great strain,” Garwood told Reuters.