Amid ongoing conflict, Somali refugees recruited to fight Al-Shabaab

With the security climate in Somalia showing no signs of improvement, hundreds of thousands of Somali citizens have been displaced since early 2010. The UNHCR estimates there are currently 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Somalia, and this trend is on the increase. The ongoing fighting in Mogadishu and other locations has caused nearly 170,000 residents to flee since the beginning of the year, according to the UNHCR. There have been 10,000 new refugee registrations in the UNHCR camps of northern Kenya, already home to an astounding 270,000 refugees. Meanwhile, aid groups are being forced out of Mogadishu and its surrounding IDP camps, creating an increasingly tenuous situation for displaced Somalis.

It’s within this context that allegations are emerging that thousands of Somali refugees have been recruited in Kenya to participate in a covert force to assist Somalia’s transitional government in fighting the extremist Islamist group, Al-Shabaab. A November 2009 Human Rights Watch report condemned the recruitment of Somali refugees for this force, allegedly orchestrated by the Kenyan government and exiled Somalis.

A piece in today’s Washington Post confirms this story. According to the Post, young recruits were promised as much as “$600 a month to join a force advertised as supported by the United Nations or the United States,” and are then taken to Kenyan military training camps under these false pretenses. Stripped of their IDs and cell phones, recruited young men and teenagers are allegedly trained in these camps for a few weeks, before being sent to the frontlines of the ongoing fighting in Somalia.

Al-Shabaab is also busy recruiting disillusioned, vulnerable Somali youth in sprawling Kenyan camps; they can apparently offer $300 per month and a $50 signing bonus. For Somalis living in protracted exile, with little opportunity for economic self-sufficiency, the offer is obviously enticing. The successful illegal recruitment of combatants in refugee camps – no matter which side of the conflict they would be fighting for – is fueled by the dearth of other opportunities.

While Kenyan authorities have made several contradictory statements about their involvement in and the details of this recruitment drive, Gen. Yusuf Dhumal, the top military commander of the U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, confirmed the allegations in late 2009, claiming that “Kenya and Somalia ‘had agreed’ to recruit 1,500 young soldiers from northeast Kenya, the heartland of ethnic Somali communities, and were training most of them outside of Mombasa.”

These practices contravene international law, as refugee camps “should be free from any military recruitment and exclusively civilian and humanitarian in character”, according to the aforementioned Human Rights Watch report. The recruitment of civilians, particularly children, also represents a violation of refugee rights. Displaced Somalis are facing a tough enough situation; they should not have to worry about losing their sons to an illegitimate, illegal “covert force,” for which they will likely serve as little more than cannon fodder.

Image: Flickr