For Somali Refugees, A False Choice

Kismayo, the capital of the southern-most province of Somalia, was recovered from the Al-Shabaab terrorist organization in 2012 by Kenyan and Somali troops. With the change of control, the local government is now actively trying to set up a functioning administration. Yet a mere 10 to 15 km from the city, areas are still under control of the same terrorist group from which many refugees fled in the past decade. My colleague Mark Yarnell and I recently visited Kismayo to see how the Somali refugees returning from Kenya’s Dadaab camp are faring.

In the building where the Somali returnees are initially received, we met Fartuun, a mother of six who left her husband and his second wife in Kenya. Fartuun and her friends who joined our conversation were thoroughly dejected. “They promised that it was safe and that we would be helped,” she said, “but I am not sure where to go. I have no shelter and must rent a place, and there are no schools for my children.” Other women said that had they known what they knew now about the lack of services and support available to returnees, they would have stayed in Kenya.

Under intense pressure from the Government of Kenya (which has threatened to close the Dadaab camp in November, while in a contradictory manner maintaining that the repatriation is a voluntary exercise), the number of refugees who have opted to try their luck at returning to Somalia has dramatically increased in the past few months. And the vast majority has gone to Kismayo.

Repatriation to one’s home country is usually the most desirable solution for refugees. But it has no meaning if returning refugees find themselves in the same desperate situation that drove them to flee in the first place, with violence and turmoil threatening their lives and those of their families. Certainly, breaking with the life refugees experience in Kenya will be difficult under any circumstances as it requires breaking habits, finding the energy to resume an independent and productive life, and adjusting to a country that has dramatically changed since they fled. But choosing to return to Somalia will be nearly impossible in any case, if the returnees face circumstances where stability and safety are far from assured. Indeed, the local government recently suspended the reception of returning refugees, citing “severe humanitarian challenges.”

In Kismayo, the returnees face a variety of issues with little or no access to services. There are few options for education for children, with no public schools, only private ones. Further and more fundamentally, the government is struggling to find land that can accommodate returnees, many of whom are not originally from the city, but fear returning to their original homes in the unsafe hinterland. The city already hosts around 40,000 internally displaced people who live in a squalid camp bereft of the most basic facilities. The civil society organizations supporting humanitarian work operate in a constraining environment. The United Nations and donors who purport to support the returnees are hunkered into a fortified camp at the airport, some 10 miles away, and can only carry out sporadic trips to the city under forbidding security escorts – save for their local staff, of course.

As one senior official in the state government told us, “Kenya and the UN are dumping refugees on us.” With the increasing number of returning refugees, local officials are at a loss how to respond to the influx with the local government’s lack financial and human resources. They also fear that their incapacity to absorb returning young men into the local workforce, which is already restricted, will leave some with no other option than to join the very terrorist organization or country bandits from whom they originally fled. As a result, the local officials have told the Kenyan government and United Nations, wisely in my opinion, that they would suspend the reception of returning refugees, a decision which generated a flurry of diplomatic activities between Mogadishu, Nairobi, and the UN.

Sustainability is key to successful repatriation exercises. Yet current security, access, and development activities do not meet even basic thresholds of sustainability in terms of the large number of Somali returnees that Kenya currently seeks. Furthermore, southern Somalia is likely to experience a serious La Ni‎ña effect in the coming months, which will further aggravate the very serious food security situation in the country.

In this context, Kenya’s policies are pushing refugees into renewed misery and insecurity, refugees who have survived their initial ordeal in fleeing Somalia and have achieved some degree of recovery in the Kenyan camps. Further, the Kenyan government also runs the risk of aggravating the situation in Somalia at its own peril, possibly destabilizing a country still recovering from decades of conflict and deprivation.

Post Scriptum
: A few days after our visit to Kismayo, we met Fatouma, a refugee in the Dadaab camp in Kenya. She had just registered to return to Somalia with her eight children. Standing next to a UNHCR poster that read, “Return is my choice,” Fatouma stated unambiguously that hers was not a voluntary decision, but that she “did not want to be punished by the Kenyans if or when the camp was to close.” Interestingly, she was perfectly aware of the conditions we had witnessed in Kismayo, which she deemed not conducive to a safe return. ”But what is my choice?” she asked.

We are witnessing a developing catastrophe. Rights that have been carefully preserved over 25 years are being violated, creating a new humanitarian emergency in a country where it is difficult to respond and torpedoing incipient efforts to rebuild a dysfunctional country. Kenya, the United Nations, and donors must stop this crisis in the making before it is too late and re-frame the whole exercise in a carefully planned manner that will prioritize sustainability irrespective of the time it takes to get it right.