The UN refugee agency said Thursday it has assisted 76 Ethiopian refugees who have been living in two refugee camps in northern Kenya to return home.
According to the United Nations Higher Commission of Refugees (UNHCR), this marks the first-ever voluntary repatriation programme for a large group of Ethiopian refugees in Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya.
"This is one of the key factors behind UNHCR's position that repatriation must remain voluntary and gradual in order to ensure that it is durable," Fathiaa Abdalla, UNHCR Representative in Kenya, said in a statement issued in Nairobi.
Currently, there are a total of 28,560 Ethiopian refugees in Kenya. "This is a historic day for Ethiopian refugees in Kenya," said Abdalla, adding that the first group of refugees was flown from Kakuma to the eastern Ethiopian city of Dire Dawa in two UNHCR-chartered flights, from where they will then travel onwards by road to Jijiga, capital of Ethiopia's Somali Region.
The voluntary repatriation follows a series of positive steps to find solutions to one of the protracted refugee situations in Africa.
Kenya currently hosts nearly 500,000 refugees, mostly from Somalia and South Sudan, but also from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and Burundi.
The UN agency said more than 4,000 Ethiopian refugees from Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps are expected to be assisted to return home in the coming months.
The majority of refugees have been living in Kenya for decades and have opted to return home due to the improved security situation in Ethiopia.
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.
The UN agency said the majority of those returning originate from Ethiopia's Somali region and had been living in exile for up to 12 years.
More than half are women and girls, with some having been born and raised in Kakuma.