Repeated calls in recent months by Kenyan government officials to repatriate half a million Somali refugees currently living in the Dadaab refugee complex to so-called safe areas of southern Somalia have been described as unrealistic by aid agencies and by the refugees themselves.
Speaking at the London Conference on Somalia, held in London in February, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki said that the overcrowded camps at Dadaab posed “growing and serious security threats to Kenya and the region” and that his country could no longer carry such a large refugee burden.
He urged the international humanitarian community to take advantage of areas of Somalia liberated from Al-Shabab by the Kenyan Defence Forces and the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) since October 2011 to return Somalis to their home country.
Since February, several other prominent Kenyan officials, including Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula and Internal Security Minister George Saitoti (now deceased) have echoed Kibaki’s statements, referring to the border regions of Somalia as safe for returning refugees. Most recently, Acting Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Internal Security, Mutea Iringo told the newspaper The East African that his government was consulting with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR ) and other development partners on the logistics of relocating Somali refugees from Dadaab to “pacified areas” across the border.
However, UNHCR spokesperson Mans Nyberg said that his agency had received no formal proposal from the government to start returning refugees to Somalia.
Reports of continuing violence
“Of course, we’re aware of the statements by government officials, and the answer from our side is that any repatriation must be voluntary first and foremost, but also that the conditions in Somalia have to be conducive and sustainable,” Nyberg told IRIN.
|I would not mind going back to my home country, but I don't want to be an internally displaced person. I will only go when the situation fully recovers|
He noted that while some of the refugees at Dadaab had made tentative visits to their home villages across the border to check on the conditions, there was no record of any permanent returns.
A key principle of the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which Kenya is a signatory, known as non-refoulement forbids the involuntary return of refugees to a country where the threat of persecution persists.
Research by Human Rights Watch, published in March, found that fighting and abuses against civilians by Al-Shabab militants continued in the border towns and regions that Kenya claimed to have liberated and that local people were fleeing those areas rather than returning to them.
Laetitia Bader, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told IRIN that the situation had changed little since March, except that fighting had moved slightly further inland from the border.
“We’re continuing to see ambushes from Al-Shabab, so I would be very sceptical of the safety of that so-called safe zone,” she said. “Somali refugees in Dadaab at the moment have real problems, but we’re not seeing large numbers of people going back to these areas.”
Dadaab camps also dangerous
Since the launch of Kenya’s incursion into Somalia last year, Dadaab has experienced a sharp rise in attacks by Al-Shabab sympathizers targeting Kenyan police and aid workers with gunfire, explosive devices and abductions. The rising insecurity combined with funding shortages have seen relief efforts in the camps severely scaled back in recent months to all but life-saving activities.
In July, a group of seven aid agencies raised the alarm that at least 200,000 refugees would soon be left without adequate supplies of water, shelter, healthcare and education due to a funding shortfall of US$25 million. Kellie Leeson, deputy regional director for the International Rescue Committee, told IRIN the funding situation had not improved in the last month and that some donors had indicated that they would be making further cuts.
“It’s a difficult situation when you have protracted [refugee] situations, especially where a clear resolution is not obvious and there’s no definitive end point,” she said. "Everybody agrees that a return to a safe and stable Somalia is the best long-term solution, but we don’t have that situation right now."
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Despite the increasing dangers and hardships of camp life, none of the refugees that IRIN spoke to were ready to return home.
"It is not safe there," said Muktar Ahmed, a 38-year-old resident of Ifo Camp. "Even though Dadaab is becoming insecure these days, we cannot choose to go to a more dangerous and battle-filled zone."
"I would not mind going back to my home country, but I don't want to be an internally displaced person (IDP)," said Farhan Mumin, a shopkeeper who has lived at Dadaab for two decades. "I will only go when the situation fully recovers."
Meanwhile, humanitarian agencies have pointed out that delivering large quantities of aid to IDP camps in areas of Somalia that are not sufficiently secure could not only endanger the lives of aid workers and returnees, but could further destabilise the region.
"I think for the time being, it's unrealistic and it's political," commented Bader of Human Rights Watch. "The focus should be on protecting those who are here [in Kenya] and making sure their needs are met."
Adams Oloo, a political analyst and lecturer at the University of Nairobi, noted that with general elections looming in March 2013, statements about repatriating refugees to Somalia by Kenyan politicians might be aimed merely at resonating with voters while “that might not be what the government is willing to quickly do.”