UN and Red Cross officials briefed negotiators from Kenya's political parties meeting on 4 February as part of a dialogue aimed at resolving the political crisis.
Leaders from the government and opposition discussed humanitarian issues as the second item on a four-point "national dialogue" agenda. They were told that displaced people trapped in "hostile" areas may need further organised transport operations to take them to safety.
A briefing prepared by the officials listed the dimensions of the humanitarian problems, mechanisms for response, coordination and fund-raising efforts. The Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) estimates 301,000 people were displaced in post-election violence as of 31 January, not including those hosted by other families. Many are in police stations or churches out of fear for their security, being of a minority ethnic group in that area.
The negotiation teams, chaired by the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, "were listening carefully", Elizabeth Lwanga, UN humanitarian coordinator for Kenya, told IRIN. "We hope they understand the gravity of the humanitarian situation and the critical importance of stopping the violence, because without the violence stopping, the humanitarian situation will continue.
"There was a discussion on the need to move people to where they're safe, whether it is to their original regions or back to where they've been displaced from, but the issue in all cases is security," she said.
In a statement following the day's session, the Kenyan parties said they would "assist and encourage displaced persons to go back to their homes or other areas and to have safe passage and security throughout".
The UN's top official on the human rights of IDPs, Walter Kälin, told IRIN that the basic principle for any movement of IDPs should be their own "free choice". However, he pointed out that "you can only freely choose if you have different options available". It is "very common", he added, that IDPs "end up threatened from all sides and become political pawns". As well as efforts from the international community, "[national] authorities have the responsibility to create conditions that allow for such freedom to choose", he said, referring to rights and responsibilities laid out in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.
Abbas Gullet, head of the KRCS, told IRIN that organised relocation of IDPs to their places of ethnic origin had to be considered, even though it raised political, ethical and legal issues.
"We are at a critical point ... this is an issue that needs to be seriously considered." He proposed that at least IDP women and children could go "back" voluntarily until things improved.
"We haven't said we're going to do it," Abbas said, acknowledging the dilemmas. "We don't want to be involved in any form of ethnic cleansing," he stressed. However, he argued that the IDPs themselves were asking to be moved to their areas of origin, and for those economic migrants without property, land or businesses, the relative security and opportunities for earning a living at "home" were compelling reasons to move voluntarily.
The government took out advertisements in the national press over the weekend to stress that Kenyans could live and work anywhere in the country without regard for ethnicity.
But while the IDPs' wishes should be paramount, the rule of law needed to be applied to prevent a domino effect: those returning to their ethnic homelands in need of land and livelihoods should not then forcibly displace minorities already there, said an international official working on IDP issues. He cited the example of Bosnia, where a division of the population along ethnic lines due to insecurity became a "fait accompli".
An analyst familiar with the legal issues told IRIN that "reinforcing evictions" by assisting relocations posed major ethical questions, especially where families had owned land for a generation or more outside their "homeland". Nevertheless, private citizens have been helping their ethnic kin to get out, he said, by providing cash or trucks. Unless continuous pressure is maintained to enforce IDPs' right to return to their land, a dangerous precedent would be set, where in future any group might feel able to say "well it wasn't their land 40 years ago" and make further violent land grabs. "We shouldn't go down that road," the analyst said; people are "choosing between poor options".
Lwanga said "having them [IDPs] in police stations is not right. [In the short term] maybe it's better to have them go back to their homes ... if it is voluntary".
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises. Become a member of The New Humanitarian today.