Analysis: Dadaab Refugees Stopped on Return to Somalia, Raising Repatriation Questions

Screenshot 2016-08-29 at 10.45.54 PMOn Monday, Jubaland regional authorities in Somalia stopped a convoy of refugees from transiting to their destination due to a lack of humanitarian assistance to support their return, raising further questions of how refugees can leave Kenya’s Dadaab camp safely and sustainably.

VOA has the latest:

In an interview with VOA’s Somali service, Jubbaland’s interior and security minister, Gen. Mohamed Warsame Darwish, said security forces are preventing the returnees from moving out of the transition center in Dobley town.

“We have decided to suspend the returnees’ movement because thousands, who are already in the cities like Kismayo port town, the region’s main city, are facing severe humanitarian challenges,” he said. Darwish added that the Tripartite Agreement “did not fulfill the expectations of the refugees.”

“Now, we have more than 16,000 returnees,” he said. “Most of them flooded into the cities to survive. But it is huge burden to us so that we should keep the new returnees close to the border until the issue is solved.”

Since late August, the Kenyan government has walked back its threat to attempt closing Dadaab refugee camp and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that 24,000 refugees had voluntarily left the facility since December 2014.

Despite this positive news, the prospect of rapid mass returns remain either elusive or risky compared to a more gradual transition.

This most recent incident should be a wake-up call to the unpredictable and harsh politics of refugee repatriation.

Who’s to Blame?

The regional government in Jubaland rightly acknowledged it cannot receive Dadaab refugees without significant international assistance. But at this point in the repatriation process, there should be a clear understanding between UNHCR and Somali authorities on their respective responsibilities.

The Jubaland minister in the interview above was certainly aware that the Kismayo area has been hosting thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) for years, as this is not a new development that spontaneously emerged the night before the returnees were scheduled to arrive.

Instead, it reveals a potential breakdown in communication and collaboration between UNHCR and Jubaland that could have occurred in several ways:

  • Possibility 1: Jubaland failed to inform UNHCR about its inability to support the current group of refugees;
  • Possibility 2: Jubaland initially agreed with UNHCR regarding the group’s return but reversed its decision at the last minute in order to guarantee more international assistance;
  • Possibility 3: UNHCR facilitated travel for this group of refugees, despite warnings from Jubaland about its ability to support them;
  • Possibility 4: There are doubts developing about the actual availability of land allegedly allocated for returning refugees near Kismayo.

In any of these cases, there appears to have been an egregious ethical and possibly legal failure on the part of UNHCR, Kenya, and Somalia that cannot simply be swept under the rug.

Simulating the Pace of Dadaab’s Closure

Proponents of a swift sweep of Dadaab’s quarters often ignore the magnitude of challenges associated with emptying the world’s largest refugee camp.

It was previously calculated that a 6% per year reduction in the size of Dadaab would mean that the camp would not be empty until after 2070.

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Another way to visualize this process is through using a fixed number of refugees.

Under even the most generous rates, it could still take almost a decade or more to find new homes for Dadaab residents.

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UNHCR is even trying to transfer thousands of Dadaab refugees to Kakuma camp in Kenya to reduce the size of the population. However, it is not about the speed of returns but about legality, accountability, and sustainability.

Those that return to Somalia without proper assistance, resources, or opportunities are at risk of losing everything again, possibly constituting refoulement and exacerbating the humanitarian situation in Somalia.

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To look at this issue deeper, it is useful to take a look at UNHCR demographic data of more than 16,000 refugees that have left Dadaab this year to understand the context in which they are returning.

UNHCR’s occupational analysis indicates many returnees are students or do not have a trade to work in Somalia.

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According to the data, 8,462 out of 16,200 people (52%) have returned in 2016 without a trade, and 12,390 (76%) have no education. This is an astonishing figure that shows many returnees do not have the optimal tools to build a new life from scratch — whether in a bustling town like Kismayo or where farming, fishing, and livestock rearing are generally practiced in the outskirts.

The question has to be asked: even if some refugees decide to return voluntarily, is UNHCR equipping  returnees with enough resources to survive?

Can Kismayo and Baidoa handle the large of influx of returnees?

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Today’s episode of Dadaab returnees being held up by Jubaland authorities in Dhobley due to lack of humanitarian assistance shows that they may not be able to do so.

While there have been “go-and-see” visits for refugees, UNHCR and its partners should consider expanding efforts to broadcast reports on what it is like for returning refugees — including their successes and struggles — so that Dadaab residents have a clearer picture of how the repatriation process is being implemented.

Categories: Jubaland, Kenya

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