On the road from the world's biggest refugee camp to the Kenyan capital, there are seven police checkpoints. Each of them, for a Somali refugee, can quickly become a nightmare of arrest and intimidation.
"The police at every checkpoint – they do whatever they want, whether there's a law or not," says 43-year-old Mohamed, a Somali refugee who was arrested and jailed at one of the Kenyan checkpoints last year. "Being a Somali means you are always afraid."
Arrests are just one of the punishments routinely inflicted on the refugees who have fled famine and war in their homeland. Over the past six months, Kenyan police have committed serious acts of violence – including rape and torture – against Somali and Ethiopian refugees and even against Kenyan citizens of Somali origin, according to a report to be released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch.
Claiming that the Somalis are sheltering "terrorists" in their midst, the Kenyan government is trying to force all of the refugees and asylum seekers in Nairobi – an estimated 55,000 people – to relocate to the Dadaab refugee camp, a vast and notoriously overcrowded tent city in the remote scrublands near the Somalia border. A court challenge by refugee groups has stalled the move, but it looms as a threat in the near future if they lose the case.
Most of the violence and abuse is inflicted on the refugees by corrupt Kenyan police who demand bribes. "Almost every one of the 101 people interviewed for this report said police demanded victims pay them large sums of money and then let them go, indicating that personal gain – not national security concerns – was the main reason police targeted and abused their victims," says the report by Human Rights Watch.
The human-rights organization says it has documented 50 cases, involving rape and serious violence by police against refugees, which constitute torture under international law.
While rape and torture may be the most extreme examples of police abuse of Somali refugees, the most common forms of harassment are arrest, detention and extortion of bribe money. At least 1,000 refugees have been arbitrarily detained by Kenyan police since November, according to Human Rights Watch.
Mohamed, a refugee and small-goods trader who was unwilling to give his full name for fear of police persecution, said he spent a day in Kenyan police custody after he was arrested at a checkpoint outside the town of Garissa, on the road between the refugee camp and Nairobi. The police demanded a $75 bribe from him before they would release him, he said.
"Even if you have United Nations and Kenyan identity documents, the police will never respect you," he said in an interview in Nairobi. "You are treated like you're useless and inhuman. They treat you like you are nothing."
The abuse of refugees began after Kenya launched its military invasion of southern Somalia in late 2011. Since then, hostility to Somalis has escalated, terrorism fears have soared, and thousands of refugees are bearing the brunt of a crackdown by an often brutal police force.
The abuse grew worse after a series of grenade and rifle attacks in Kenya, widely blamed on Somali terrorists although the perpetrators have not been identified. After each attack, the arrests of refugees have escalated.
"Anything that happens here will be blamed on Somali refugees, even if we are 1,000 kilometres away," Mohamed said.
"If something happens, Somalis are always afraid, because Somalis become the target. The moment a Kenyan is attacked, the police will stop you on every street. They question you: 'What are you doing, where are you going, who are you visiting?' "
Another Somali refugee, 19-year-old Abdulrahman Dek, said he was detained for five hours by police in Nairobi last month after he had cut his hair in a mohawk style in imitation of an Italian soccer star. They accused him of being a "gang member" and he was released only when he paid a $24 bribe to the police.
"All they want is money," he said in an interview. "They're not using the law. If it was the law, they would give you a piece of paper."
Many Somalis, he said, are now trying to leave Kenya because of the police harassment.
The biggest wave of police abuses began on Nov. 19, 2012, after unidentified people attacked a minibus in Nairobi, killing seven people. "Refugees told us how hundreds of Kenyan police unleashed 10 weeks of hell on communities close to the heart of Nairobi, torturing, abusing and stealing from some of the country's poorest and most vulnerable people," said a statement by Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Seven women told the rights group that police raped them in their homes or outside. Another 40 refugees said they were beaten and kicked by the police.
Of the 1,000 refugees who were arbitrarily detained by police, many were held in "inhuman and degrading conditions," the report says.