First convoy in Somali Bantu relocation set to leave

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is due to begin transporting some 11,000 Somali Bantu refugees living in Dadaab refugee camps in northeastern Kenya to Kakuma refugee camp in the northwest from Wednesday, 26 June, in close collaboration with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

This transfer is the first step towards the resettlement of the Somali Bantu refugees, who have lived in the Dadaab refugee camp for 10 years, to the US after their identification as "an at-risk persecuted minority without the possibility of return to their homeland," IOM spokesperson Niurka Pineiro said in a press briefing on Tuesday.

The 1,500 km journey - through some barren and bandit-prone countryside - es expected to take some 30 hours over two days. IOM said it has worked with UNHCR to identify overnight stops and medical facilities along the route, and taken the necessary security precautions.

Bus convoys will depart on a weekly basis for an estimated four months, it added.

The US decided last year that it would resettle over 8,000 Somali Bantus in 2002, probably because UNHCR feared tension in Dadaab if they remained there, arising from the fact that Dadaab has a predominantly non-Bantu Somali population, according to humanitarian sources.

This was the likely reason for the decision to move the Bantus to Kakuma, which has a substantial Somali population but is predominantly Sudanese, they told IRIN.

Screening of the Somali Bantus, a minority group from southern Somalia, was under way in November 2001, a UNHCR spokesman, Newton Kanhema, told IRIN at the time.

It is expected that the majority of approved refugees from within the Somali Bantu group will travel to the US between January 2003 and June 2004. Last year, IOM facilitated medical examinations and resettlement of nearly 9,000 refugees from Kenya to the US.

The nongovernmental organisation World Vision and IOM are together constructing a transit camp of 2,200 mud brick shelters in Kakuma to accommodate the Somali Bantu refugees, and those for the first 4,000 have already been constructed.

IOM has also completed the construction of a resettlement-processing centre, which includes medical facilities, cultural orientation classrooms and interview rooms for the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, Pineiro stated on Tuesday.

The first Bantus arrived in Somalia during the slave trade in 1800s and settled on the southern Somali coast. Somali political sources told IRIN that most of the current Bantu population in the Juba valley were originally from Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique. Some of the Bantus in southern Somalia had kept their traditions and spoke the languages of their ancestors, the source said.

Originally accepted by the government of Mozambique - a country with which the Somali Bantus have historical links - the US stepped in after Mozambique, devastated by last year's floods, decided it could not cope with the resettlement programme.

The US resettlement programme has specifically targeted the Somali Bantus (known as Mushunguli and Gosha) resident in Dadaab and Kakuma camps, who arrived in Kenya and registered with UNHCR prior to 1 January 1998, because they were an identifiable group, particularly impoverished and a persecuted minority unlikely ever to return to Somalia, according to humanitarian sources.

Mushunguli describes a social group descended from slaves, while Gosha literally translates as "forest" and refers to this group's villages located in formerly forested regions of the Juba River valley. The term "Somali Bantu" came into use during consideration of this group for resettlement, as a general term to distinguish them from indigenous Somalis.

"Due to the Bantus' history and physical features, which are more Negroid than the indigenous Somali, they are one of the most discriminated-against groups in Somali society," according to the Washington-based Cultural Orientation Network, which provides training for refugees arriving in the US.

"Discrimination manifests itself in many ways, including extremely little intermarriage between Somali Bantus and other Somali clans; and being relegated to jobs and tasks that other Somalis will not perform," it added.

The minority Somali Bantu were "treated like second class citizens" by Somalis, according to humanitarian sources familiar with Somalia. Insecurity and the civil war in Somalia over the last decade had rendered the group even more vulnerable, they added.