NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Half a million Somali refugees living in Kenya will return home over the next three years after the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) signed an agreement with the governments of both countries on Sunday.
The number of refugees from Somalia - 1.1 million - is the third highest in the world after Afghanistan and Syria. About half of them live in squalid, overcrowded camps in Kenya’s arid north.
Thousands of refugees have spontaneously returned home this year as security has improved in parts of the country under the Somali federal government and African Union troops.
Kenyan politicians have called for Somali refugees to be repatriated following September’s attack on the Westgate shopping mall by the Islamic militant group al Shabaab.
One parliamentarian reportedly called Dadaab a “nursery for terrorists” and called for its closure, despite the fact that no refugees have been linked to any of the attacks on Kenya.
Kenya sent its soldiers into Somalia in 2011 to drive al Shabaab out of major urban areas, although they still control swathes of countryside.
“It’s very important to underline that no one is forcing Somalis to leave Kenya,” UNHCR’s representative in Kenya, Raouf Mazou, said in a statement on Monday.
“The agreement acknowledges the need for continued protection of Somali refugees in Kenya, and the need for other durable solutions to their plight.”
GRADUAL AND VOLUNTARY
Repatriation will be gradual and voluntary, starting with support for refugees who return on their own, leading to formal returns organised by UNHCR when conditions are right.
“We are in the process of mobilising resources to start assistance to spontaneous refugees on a pilot basis in the days to come,” Mazou said at a signing ceremony on Sunday.
Dadaab, near the Somali border, is the world’s largest refugee camp and home to 388,000 Somali refugees. An additional 54,000 Somali refugees are hosted in Kakuma camp and 32,500 live in the capital, Nairobi.
Representatives of UNHCR and the two governments will regularly visit the camps, consult with refugee leaders and visit areas of return. They will also monitor and facilitate returns to ensure they are safe, Mazou said.
He called on donors to make sure that healthcare, education, water and sanitation are made available in areas of return as the country attempts to rebuild after two decades of civil war and lawlessness.
“This will ensure the sustainability of the return of those who have, in the past few months, decided to take their destiny into their hands,” he said.
Food rations were cut in Dadaab last month due to a shortage of funding.
On November 13, UNHCR will host a panel of experts in Geneva to discuss solutions to the Somali refugee crisis.