Analysis of new data shows that a range of factors will prevent any prospect of mass returns from Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, including:  an unwillingness of refugees to return,  Kenya’s withdrawal of forces to the border, and  the Jubaland administration’s lack of resources.
As of February, Kenya has continued to lobby the United Nations to expedite its closure. However, Kenya has an obligation under international law that prohibits refoulement of refugees. Under the tripartite agreement between Kenya, Somalia, and UNHCR, more than 79,000 refugees have returned voluntarily to Somalia since 2014.
Stay or Go?
Despite this nominally high figure, key findings from REACH’s recent research highlight the reluctance and unsustainability of return for the 210,000 residents of the camp:
“The majority of the households in Dadaab who reported having members that had returned to Somalia said that these returnees did not register for voluntary repatriation with UNHCR or authorities in Kenya mainly because they had planned it as a temporary return.
Individual interviews at the bus termini in Dadaab concurred with this, as the majority of people leaving Dadaab (99%) had not registered for voluntary repatriation. Most of these spontaneous returns are planned as temporary, with many of these returnees citing plans to come back to Dadaab.
46% of the households in Dadaab said they will not return to their Country of origin. Only 6% said that they were certain to return within the next six months.”
As of March 2019: 2,866 (21%) of the 13,467 unregistered individuals at Dadaab are those who have returned to the camp after previously voluntarily returning home, further highlighting the difficulty of succeeding upon return.
In the last two years, the population of Dadaab has decreased annually by an average of 10%. If this rate of change holds steady, Dadaab will still have approximately 73,000 residents in 10 years and 25,000 residents by 2039. In fact, Dadaab’s population would not reach less than 10,000 residents until 2048.
Intervening variables could impact this rate of change for the better or worse. The most likely outcome is that it will probably take another two decades before the FGS and regional administrations can improve adequate infrastructure and services for its current population – much less for over 200,000 refugees waiting to return home from across the border.
Kenya’s AMISOM Withdrawal
AMISOM is seeking to gradually withdraw its forces and hand over control of towns to Somali forces. But, the process has been unpredictable and disorganized as parts of the 22,000-strong mission have left towns without apparently little notice to Somali forces that are far from ready to provide security independently.
The Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) have withdrawn from several bases in Jubaland in the last two months, and the contingent has no forward operating bases in Gedo region beyond the border towns of El Wak and Geriley. Some analysts believe this is a vengeful action in response to Somalia’s refusal to settle the maritime boundary case out of court.
But, Kenya’s withdrawals over time may actually be benefitting al-Shabaab more than anything else.
The militants have taken over towns abandoned by the KDF and other AMISOM forces. El Adde, which was one of the towns al-Shabaab recaptured on January 2016, reportedly now hosts 2 Cuban doctors that al-Shabaab kidnapped in the border town of Mandera. (A snapshot of territorial control between al-Shabaab and pro-Somali government forces from the live map is below.)
In addition, at least 1,500 Somali refugees have returned to areas controlled by al-Shabaab (merely considering Middle Juba) since 2014. Al-Shabaab’s expanding territory gives it a larger base to forcibly tax and recruit locals, which drive the resources it needs for violent operations.
Jubaland is Not Ready
The question of whether Somalia is prepared to accept a large influx of refugees in reality boils down to whether the Jubaland region specifically is prepared to address such a large population increase.
Approximately 67% of Somali refugees in Kenya are from the Jubaland region, according to data from 2017. Kismayo, one of the main areas of refugee return in the Lower Jubba region, already hosts almost 60,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), and several of these sites were described as being vulnerable to forced evictions.
In August 2016, the Jubaland administration temporarily suspended refugee returns because it did not have the resources to support returns in large numbers.
So, while Kenya has long perceived the Jubaland administration as a proxy force for its interests, that likely will not preclude Jubaland from resisting initiatives that overwhelm the administration.