13 June 2016 – On his first visit to Kenya, the chief of the United Nations refugee agency received assurances from the African country that the return of refugees to Somalia would not contravene international obligations.
The visit came as the Kenyan Government announced plans to close the Dadaab refugee camp, home to nearly 350,000, mostly Somali, refugees. Kenya has been hosting the world’s largest refugee camp for a quarter century, and has consistently welcomed refugees from other conflicts, most recently from South Sudan.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi met with Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta to discuss solutions for Somali refugees in Kenya.
The UN official welcomed Mr. Kenyatta’s assurances that the country would uphold its long-standing reputation for respecting the rights of refugees.
“I was very happy to hear the President say emphatically that any solution – and repatriation is obviously the best solution – has to be conducted in a manner that is humane, dignified, safe and respects international law and principles,” said Mr. Grandi.
He noted that the international donor support to Kenya and especially the local hosting communities has been generous, but insufficient to cover all the needs, pledging continued engagement by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
In 2013, Kenya, Somalia and UNHCR signed a tripartite agreement to help Somali refugees from Dadaab begin voluntarily returning home to nine designated areas in South Central regions and in Puntland and Somaliland that are deemed relatively safe. More than 14,000 have returned so far and thousands more have signed up to leave.
However, many other refugees cite concerns about not having the means to rebuild their homes and start businesses. They are also worried that sufficient education and healthcare would not be available in their home communities.
During a visit to the Dadaab Refugee Camp, refugees told him that they would like to go home, but only when their towns were safe.
“There is no one who can give up on his country,” said Habiba Abdullahi, a refugee at the camp. “We are ready to go back, but it is not the time […] because the challenges and the reasons we fled from Somalia are still there.”
Calls for massive investment in Somalia to enable more refugees to return
On Saturday, the High Commissioner travelled to Somalia, where he met Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. The President said all Somali refugees are welcome back and confirmed his commitment to an “orderly, humane and dignified repatriation” of his citizens as specified under the tripartite agreement.
The President concurred with the need to improve conditions in places of return. He also emphasized the need to do more for the over one million internally displaced people in Somalia, who are unable to return home because of ongoing instability and presence of Al Shabaab.
Mr. Grandi also visited Baidoa, Somalia, to meet with former refugees from the Dadaab Camp who recently returned home. Though most said they are glad to be back, they also acknowledged their homecoming was difficult.
Maryan Hassan moved back to Baidoa with her seven children after eight years in exile. Her house was destroyed during the conflict, and she is working to rebuild it but has no means.
Although the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) has made significant gains, Al Shabaab is still posing a major security threat to the country, and after more than two decades of war, Somalia has little to offer in terms of opportunities for people moving back.
They (youth) need to be helped to get opportunity here or they are in danger of joining the bad guys
“We have youths that have graduated from high school, from Dadaab. Before the children were busy in school and now they are idle,” Hassan told the High Commissioner. “They need to be helped to get opportunity here or they are in danger of joining the bad guys.”
Still, she urged her compatriots to return: “There have been a lot of improvements here. To those suffering [in Dadaab], I tell them, come back to your country.”
Mr. Grandi encouraged development actors like the World Bank to invest in rebuilding Somalia, stressing that Maryan’s resilience is a strong example of why the international community must invest in Somalia to ensure that refugees have a basic infrastructure to enable them to restart their lives.
“Returns have to be sustainable. That means having houses, but also health facilities, education, employment,” he said.
At a conference last year in Brussels, countries pledged $110 million to fund the sustainable return and reintegration of Somali refugees. To date, only $7.2 million of those funds have been received.