The repatriation of Somalia refugees from Dadaab camp in north-eastern Kenya is not going according to plan, with only 2,000 out of a target of 10,000 having volunteered to return home.
But the Kenya government says it is optimistic that 100,000 refugees will have voluntarily returned to Somalia by the end of the year.
Both the government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cite lack of facilities for the returnees — water, schools and health facilities — insecurity, and the lengthy consultations between Kenya and Somalia, as among the main stumbling blocks.
Some 2,129 refugees, most of them women, had been assisted to return to Kismayu, Baidoa and Luuq by June 10. The next batch of about 100 refugees will leave on June 16.
To fast-track the repatriation, the Tripartite Commission comprising Kenya, Somalia and UNHCR, which met in Mogadishu on June 2, opened six new districts for humanitarian and development assistance: Mogadishu, Afgoye, Balad, BeletWeyne, Jowhar, and WanleWeyne. This is in addition to the existing areas of return — Kismayo, Baidoa and Luuq.
While reintegration assistance will only be available in the nine areas identified so far, the return package will be given to all refugees seeking assistance to return voluntarily to any area of Somalia.
The pilot scheme was targeting 10,000 people from December last year to April this year. The UNHCR has been trying to strike a balance between the Kenya government’s demand that the refugees be relocated (over claims that the Dadaab camp had become a recruitment ground for Al Shabaab) and safeguarding the right of the refugees to be protected.
In April, following the Garissa terrorist attack in which 148 people died, Deputy President William Ruto kicked off a storm when he revealed that the government has given UNHCR three months to close Dadaab.
“The camp is open to anybody from Somalia and with a population of over 300,000, it provides avenues for business, which could include Al Shabaab fighters, sympathisers and funders who provide information to fighters across the border,” said Harun Komen, the acting director of Kenya’s Department of Refugee Affairs.
But UNHCR deputy country representative Wella Kouyou maintained that forced return is not an option given Kenya’s commitment to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees that recognises the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries.
“Nobody wishes to be a refugee and many would be willing to return when the conditions that made them flee change,” he said, adding that UNHCR is working with the government for a durable solution through voluntary repatriation, reintegration and resettlement.
Over 900,000 Somalis have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, while 1.1 million Somalis remain internally displaced. By May 31, Kenya had 349,573 Somali refugees in Dadaab — 346,216 refugees and 3,357 asylum seekers. The total number of refugees has now come to 344,444 (June 10).
New influx of refugees
Meanwhile, ahead of the World Refugee Day on June 20, humanitarian agencies warn that the East African region is facing a new influx of refugees due to political instability.
Political instability in Burundi, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the poverty and repression-related flights from Ethiopia and Eritrea, the fighting in Yemen, and the conflict in South Sudan are mentioned.
UNHCR regional spokesperson Teresa Ongaro said that 100,000 refugees have fled from South Sudan and Eritrea in the past few months and that the exodus from Burundi is likely to increase within weeks.
“The exodus from Burundi is not because of civil war but people who are afraid, having experienced the 13 years of civil war; they do not want to a repeat,” she said.
Ms Ongaro suggested that Kenya—which is likely to be a major recipient of refugees — should not develop compassion fatigue.
“It is time we humanise the refugee issue and not just be obsessed with their numbers and their negative impact on society,” she said.
From 2010 to May 2015, the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers have risen steadily to reach 2.94 million.
On the other hand, Anita Kattakuchy of Oxfam, who is also a co-chair of the Inter-Agency Working Group, involving 66 agencies dealing with refugee affairs, said that there is likely to be more pressure on Kenya to engage in preventive action like political negotiation, as it is doing in Burundi.
By end of May, Ethiopia led the Horn and the Great Lakes Region hosting 697,000 refugees, mainly from the South Sudan conflict. Kenya followed with 590,000, Uganda with 449,000) Sudan with 325,000 and South Sudan with 262,000.
The five top countries of origin are Somalia (713,000), South Sudan (693,000), DRC (440,000) Sudan (290,000) and Eritrea (260,000).