The change of government in Ethiopia, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at the helm, is encouraging refugees living all over the region to return home.
In the past week, 76 Ethiopian refugees in Kenya and 128 in Tanzania returned home in response to what Ethiopia calls a citizen-focused diplomacy programme.
The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Nebiat Getachew said more than 120,000 Ethiopians had been brought home from more than 10 countries including Kenya and Tanzania over the past one year under a new initiative by Dr Ahmed's government.
There are about 28,560 Ethiopian refugees in Kenya while 1,500 others are languishing in Tanzanian prisons — most of them part of a human trafficking network that operates routes to South Africa.
Eujin Byun, communications officer at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kenya, told The EastAfrican that the refugees and host countries agree the situation in Ethiopia is good enough for them to return.
The first group of refugees was flown from Kakuma in Kenya to the eastern Ethiopian city of Dire Dawa in two UNHCR-chartered flights, from where they will then travel by road to Jijiga, the capital of the Ethiopia’s Somali Region.
More than 4,000 refugees from Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya are expected to be assisted to return home in the coming months. Ms Byun said the voluntary return is gradual and UNHCR has started with those in the camps because they are easy to locate.
The UNHCR is supporting returnees with a reintegration package in the form of cash assistance, which also includes transportation allowances to ensure they can travel to their places of origin.
According to Mr Getachew, the plan is to slowly convince refugees that they will also benefit from the country’s growing economy and don’t need to continue living as exiles. He said the ministry was also working to protect the rights and dignities of Ethiopian citizens living abroad.