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Repatriating refugees is Kenya’s only answer. But it needs help

Somali families on a bus taking them back home to Somalia from Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp in a voluntary repatriation programme. Reuters/Edmund Blair

Kenya shocked the world when it announced earlier this year that it would be closing the globe’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab. Citing economic, security and environmental reasons, Kenya’s Ministry of Interior declared that it intended to cease hosting the more than 320,000 Somali refugees living there. Its decision was internationally criticised.

Dadaab, now 25 years old, hosts generations of refugees who have not known anything else and consider Kenya “home”. The Kenyan government opened the camp, designed for 90,000 refugees, in 1991 as a temporary solution to the civil war across the border.

But to repatriate all the Somalis living in Dadaab would be a gargantuan task. The difficulty is not only in where to “rehome” them, but also that many do not even know Somalia. There is also concern over their safety due to ongoing insecurity in Somalia. This means that their well-being cannot be guaranteed.

Repatriation guidelines

A tripartite agreement adopted in November 2013 between the Kenyan and Somali governments and the UN Refugee Agency outlined how repatriation should take place. The process would, according to the agreement, “require a holistic and community-based approach that would improve absorption capacity and enhanced access to basic services and self-reliance for returnees”.

Under the agreement both the Kenyan and the Somali governments responsible for repatriating refugees were required to ensure that:

  • Repatriation should be “voluntary”;

  • Somali refugees should relocate where they choose within their home country; and,

  • return should take place in “safety and dignity”.

However, in practice, these conditions cannot currently be met.

There are claims that the repatriation isn’t completely “voluntary”, that refugees willing to go to Somalia are being offered $150 cash as a “return grant” and $600 per family as a “reinstallation grant”. When faced with few prospects if they stay, this would be the only decision worth taking.

Once back in Somalia, the initial hurdles will lie in providing refugees with the basics - like food and water. These would be followed by the need to assist access to the job market, healthcare and education.

An aerial view shows makeshift shelters at the Dagahaley camp in Dadaab. Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

But, at this rate, not even the basics can be met. This was recently illustrated by the fact that authorities in Southern Somalia blocked the return of refugees from Kenya citing a lack of humanitarian assistance.

The burning question is: what options does Kenya have?

One possibility could have been the local integration of refugees. But this has been ruled out by Kenyan authorities.

Another would have been to stem the flow of refugees into Kenya by improving Somalia’s security situation. Kenya has made attempts to do this through a costly military endeavour since 2011. This was when it announced a major military offensive against the Somali militant group Al-Shabaab. That year, Kenya spent 1.9% of its GDP buying arms. Despite this, the security situation in Somalia remains fragile.

Domestic antagonism

My personal opinion is that to a great extent and despite repeated calls for assistance, Kenya has been left to deal with an immense refugee responsibility alone. This in turn has led to antagonism within Kenya towards Somali refugees.

Maintaining a large refugee population when the country is struggling to deal with its own challenges is a big ask. Kenya still needs to address issues of poverty, inequality, governance, low investment and low productivity. It also suffers from persistent droughts and is short of high productivity jobs.

The refugees were often considered by the local population as a constraint on the country’s resources, particularly since the inflow was massively composed of poor and non-skilled individuals. Many Kenyans living in proximity to the refugees also felt that they received more help than the local population.

Despite this, at the end of 2015 Kenya hosted 615,112 persons of concern for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Of that 553,912 were refugees and 39,969 asylum-seekers.

Comparing these numbers to data from Europe where the “refugee crisis” is considered very serious provides some much-needed perspective. In 2015 Italy, for example, hosted 118,047 refugees and 60,156 asylum-seekers.

Domestic intolerance in Kenya has also driven by perceived threats to the country’s security. There have been claims that refugee camps had become breeding grounds for Al-Shabaab terrorist cells. This resulted in crackdowns involving plans to deport all undocumented Somali nationals.

The Al-Shabaab terror attack in 2015 on Kenya’s Garissa University was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The attack led to the deaths of 147 students and sparked repeated calls for refugee repatriation.

A major disappointment for Kenya was the outcome of the 2015 donor conference held in Brussels. It was calculated that a plan for the repatriation of Somalis and the rebuilding of their country would cost US $500 million. Donors guaranteed only $105 million.

I see Kenya’s move to repatriate as a way to let the rest of the world know that it cannot manage this plight alone any more.

It will require a great deal of international support to repatriate the refugees. Having abandoned Kenya in its efforts to host the refugees, hopefully the international community will now hear the country’s desperate cry.

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