Since November 2013, 40,198 Somali refugees have opted to go back to Somalia under the voluntary repatriation process—representing 8 percent of the total recorded population in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp when this mass return began. Voluntary repatriation occurs when conditions in the country of origin have improved enough to enable return—a benchmark determined by both the country of asylum and the country of origin. It is considered to be a durable solution for displacement, as refugees regain the rights that they lost owing to their displacement from their country of origin.
Voluntary repatriation is recognized under Article V of the Organization of African Unity’s 1969 refugee convention, emphasizing the voluntary character of the repatriation process. It also underscores the necessity of providing clear and accurate information about the country of origin to potential returnees. Finally, it expressly provides for assurance by the country of origin that returnees will not be punished for having left and that they will receive the same rights as other citizens.
The tripartite agreement that was signed by the governments of Kenya and Somali and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in order to facilitate voluntary return lapsed in November 2016. However, the process of repatriation is still going on, with 308 refugees recorded to have left Dadaab between Jan. 1 and Jan. 13.
The Kenyan government announced last May that it would shut down the refugee camp by November, but this deadline was later extended by six months to allow for processes such as the deregistration of Kenyan nationals that had registered as refugees with UNHCR to access food aid and the movement of non-Somali refugees from Dadaab to Kakuma refugee camp. In spite of the government’s self-imposed deadline to close Dadaab, records state that only 33,213 Somali refugees returned to Somalia as of December 2016. This constitutes an 11 percent reduction of Dadaab’s population. At this rate, the camp would likely remain open for the next eight years. Challenges regarding infrastructure, rule of law, and weather patterns have all contributed to this low uptake of voluntary repatriation.
Infrastructure in Somalia
There must be proper infrastructure in the parts of Somalia to which refugees are returning for the voluntary repatriation process to be sustainable. Somalis who have lived in the refugee camp for at least five years have become accustomed to social services such as health care and education, but the vast majority of current Somali residents do not have access to these services. It is hard to imagine why Somalis that have enjoyed these services in Dadaab would choose to stay in Somalia without them.
In a survey conducted in 2013, less than 3 percent of a sample population of Somali refugees indicated any willingness to return. The primary issue that concerned them was the state of infrastructure in Somalia, and for some, their decision to return hinged on whether they would have access to medical treatment, schools, and other social services.
Calling into question the likelihood this access will increase in the near future, the regional government of Jubaland—where most returnees are sent—has announced that it does not have the capacity to absorb the number of refugees coming out of Dadaab. This has led to serious delays in the transportation of returnees to the Kismayu area, the commercial capital of Jubaland, as the regional government on two occasions refused to admit its own citizens. Officials cited a lack of adequate space for temporary housing pending permanent resettlement to areas in and around Kismayu.
Rule of Law
Rule of law is also a major concern among the Somali refugee community living in Dadaab. Al-Shabab is still a threat in Somalia despite the fact that it has lost a number of strategic territories, such as the port of Kismayu. The Somali government is still not strong enough to enforce the law, which partly explains why the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is still operating in Somalia.
This has the effect of persuading the Somali refugees living in Dadaab to defer their decision to go back home. Although their relationship with the Kenyan security forces has not been without tension, they can still depend on being better protected in Kenya than in Somalia. Should the security situation not improve in Somalia, more and more Somali refugees will opt not to leave the relative safety of the camp.
Vagaries of the Weather
Even when people do choose to leave Dadaab, changes in weather patterns have gravely affected transportation. On two occasions the returnees’ travel had to be stopped to allow for the rains to subside. These rains made the roads into Somalia impassable. Although some people were still able to travel by air, since the majority travel by road, inclement weather can prevent their return.
Moreover, a drought has been predicted to hit the horn of Africa region in 2017. This will invariably affect the willingness of Somali refugees to move back home. One of the largest refugee influxes in Kenya was the result of the region-wide 2011 drought. A total of 200,000 Somali refugees entered Kenya primarily in search of food aid, as al-Shabab did not allow food supplies from aid agencies to pass through the territories they controlled. Al-Shabab has yet to be defeated in many rural areas where food is produced. Should this year’s drought prediction become a reality, the group’s ability to hinder food distribution, coupled with a government that lacks the capacity to provide assistance to its citizens, may make returning less attractive to Somali refugees in Dadaab. Furthermore, other Somali nationals may once again seek assistance in Kenya—thus negating any progress that has been achieved by the repatriation process.
Conditions in the region do not appear to support sustainable voluntary repatriation. As a result of the many impediments to their return, Somalis have been leaving the Dadaab refugee camp very slowly. Kenyan authorities have expressed their exasperation with the pace of repatriation, as it clearly meant the camp would not be emptied by the date they had decided upon. Without proper infrastructure and effective rule of law mechanisms, coupled with the challenges posed by the region’s climate, the Somali population that has already returned to Somalia is likely to come back to the Dadaab refugee camp. This combination of forces will seriously hamper the Kenyan government’s high expectations for the camp’s closure in May 2017. The outflow of refugees has yet to reach the numbers to ensure that this deadline will be met, fostering uncertainty about the future of the camp and how far the Kenyan government will go to shut down the camp.
Andrew Maina is a leadership and governance student at a Nairobi university.
[Photo Courtesy of European Commission DG Echo]