A Long Way to Go for Somali Refugee Returns

This blog was co-authored by Jeff Crisp, Senior Advisor for Refugees International

Two weeks ago, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the European Union convened a ministerial-level pledging conference in Brussels to mobilize resources and support for the voluntary return of Somali refugees from Kenya. By the close of the conference, donor governments and agencies pledged more than $100 million, partly to support Somali refugees in Kenya but primarily to “help them voluntarily return to Somalia in safety and dignity.”

Kenya hosts nearly half a million registered Somali refugees, the vast majority of whom live in the Dadaab camps in the country’s North Eastern province. For over two decades, armed conflict and food shortages have caused major waves of Somalis to flee south, across the Kenyan border for refuge – most recently during the 2011-2012 famine – when war and drought combined to kill over 260,000 people. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have also taken refuge in Ethiopia.

Over the past three years, certain parts of Somalia have stabilized to some extent, a federal government has transitioned into power, and a modest number of refugees have gone home – including about 5,000 through a UNHCR pilot return program that was launched in December 2014. However, a review of the current humanitarian, economic, and security conditions inside Somalia – where over one million people are displaced internally – makes the timing of a conference aimed at galvanizing support for returns to be highly questionable.

The Al-Shabab terrorist group still controls large swaths of territory, and military offensives by African Union and Somali troops against Al-Shabab have caused new population displacements. The persistent insecurity disrupts trade routes and also prevents aid workers from reaching many of those in need.  In addition, recent periods of limited rainfall have led to poor harvests. In August, the Food Security and Nutrition Assessment for Somalia noted an alarming 17 percent increase in the number of people in need of emergency aid compared to six months prior.

A review of the current humanitarian, economic, and security conditions inside Somalia makes the timing of a conference aimed at galvanizing support for returns to be highly questionable.

On top of all this, the El Niño weather pattern is expected to cause a major climatic disaster in Somalia, with flooding in south-central Somalia and drought in the northern region of Somaliland, from now through December 2015. The UN Humanitarian Country Team for Somalia predicts that up to 900,000 people could be affected and $30 million is required for the initial response.   

Despite these realities, the Kenyan government has been actively urging Somali refugees to return home and, by holding a pledging conference to raise money for returns, UNHCR (as well as the EU and some donor governments) appear to be acceding to this pressure. In his remarks at the conference, the UNHCR High Commissioner, António Guterres, noted that there is “still a long way to go” until conditions in Somalia are suitable for large-scale returns, yet he also stated that UNHCR, as part of the “enhanced phase” of its returns program, is aiming to support 135,000 refugees to return between January 2016 and December 2017. It is not clear how this figure was arrived at and debatable as to whether UNHCR should set this kind of target if the decision to repatriate is to be a wholly voluntary one and left to the refugees themselves.

In order to understand UNHCR’s position, it is necessary to understand the organization’s relationship with the host state. When Dadaab was established in the early 1990s, UNHCR struck a deal with the Kenyan government allowing refugees to enter and remain in the country as long as they were confined to camps, the international community met all of their assistance costs, and their repatriation to Somalia was promoted at the earliest possible opportunity.

Kenya’s desire to activate the last of these agreements has intensified significantly in recent times, largely as a result of the government’s perception that the Somali refugee population constitutes a risk to national security. Thus in early October, Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery stated that the authorities would repatriate all Somali refugees and close the Dadaab camps, which, he alleged, had become hiding places for terrorists. “The final planning and logistical support for nearly all terrorist attacks in Kenya have executed under the cover of the refugee camps. We cannot as a country continue to offer asylum and protection to populations in spaces and areas that are taken over by criminal elements, and in this case, terrorists and their agents,” he said. 

UNHCR must continue to insist on the voluntariness of return and to desist from any action intended to induce or entice refugees to repatriate.

Confronted with such pressure, and wishing to avert the kind of action threatened by Kenya, UNHCR has been at pains to demonstrate that it is doing everything possible to maximize the rate of refugee returns to Somalia. At the same time, donor states, which would clearly like to see an early end to the refugee situation in Kenya, have been talking up the potential for repatriation. In the optimistic words of EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, “we need some good news from time to time and in the case of Somalia, we have hopes that next year we could have good developments in the country and its political and security conditions for the Somali refugees to go back home.”

This is not the first time that UNHCR has been under pressure from host and donor states to promote premature and involuntary repatriation movements. In the words of an independent study commissioned by the organization, states have in recent years “shown an unrelenting conviction that in nearly all instances, repatriation must be pursued to the virtual exclusion of other solutions.” As a result, “voluntariness has been stretched beyond all recognition in attempts to persuade refugees to return to their countries of origin. The result has been UNHCR’s tacit acceptance, in some cases, of forced returns.”

To avert such a scenario in Kenya, UNHCR must continue to insist on the voluntariness of return and to desist from any action intended to induce or entice refugees to repatriate. The organization should commission and publish independent assessments of conditions inside Somalia, focusing particularly on those locations where it is planning to implement reintegration projects. Further, UNHCR should not promote returns to areas where it is still too dangerous for the organization itself to establish a base of operations. At the same time, donors such as the EU and US must continue to prioritize the needs of those refugees who have chosen to remain in Kenya, rather than the much smaller number who have opted to go back to Somalia.