On his first visit to Kenya and Somalia as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi discussed solutions for Somali refugees in Kenya and received assurances that the return of refugees to Somalia would not contravene international obligations.
The visit comes as the Kenyan Government announced plans to close the Dadaab Refugee Camp, home to nearly 350,000, mostly Somali, refugees. Kenya has been hosting the world’s largest refugee camp for a quarter century, and has consistently welcomed refugees from other conflicts, most recently from South Sudan.
Following his meeting today with Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta, Grandi welcomed his assurances that the country would uphold its long-standing reputation for respecting the rights of refugees.
“I was very happy to hear the President say emphatically that any solution – and repatriation is obviously the best solution – has to be conducted in a manner that is humane, dignified, safe and respects international law and principles,” said Grandi.
He noted that the international donor support to Kenya and especially the local hosting communities has been generous, but insufficient to cover all the needs, and pledged continued engagement by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
In 2013, Kenya, Somalia and UNHCR signed a Tripartite Agreement to help Somali refugees from Dadaab begin voluntarily returning home to nine designated areas in South Central regions and in Puntland and Somaliland that are deemed relatively safe. More than 14,000 have returned so far and thousands more have signed up to leave.
However, many other refugees who may be willing to go back cite concerns about having the means to rebuild their homes and start businesses. They are also worried that sufficient education and healthcare would not be available in their home communities. In response, Grandi is proposing to increase the repatriation package for returning refugees and to provide them with support to pay for basic services.
During a visit to the Dadaab Refugee Camp, refugees told the High Commissioner that they would like to go home, but only when their towns were safe.
“There is no one who can give up on his country,” said Habiba Abdullahi. “We are ready to go back, but it is not the time… because the challenges and the reasons we fled from Somalia are still there.”
On Saturday, the High Commissioner travelled to Somalia, where he met Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. The President said all Somali refugees are welcome back and confirmed his commitment to an “orderly, humane and dignified repatriation” of his citizens as specified under the Tripartite Agreement.
He concurred with the need to improve conditions in places of return. He also emphasized the need to do more for the over one million internally displaced people in Somalia, who are unable to return home because of ongoing instability and presence of Al Shabaab.
Grandi also visited Baidoa, Somalia, to meet with former refugees from the Dadaab Camp who recently returned home. Though most said they are glad to be back, they also acknowledged their homecoming was difficult.
Maryan Hassan moved back to Baidoa with her seven children after eight years in exile. Her house was destroyed during the conflict, and she is working to rebuild it but has no means.
Although the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) has made significant gains, Al Shabaab is still posing a major security threat to the country, and after more than two decades of war, Somalia has little to offer in terms of opportunities for people moving back.
“We have youths that have graduated from high school, from Dadaab. Before the children were busy in school and now they are idle,” Hassan told the High Commissioner. “They need to be helped to get opportunity here or they are in danger of joining the bad guys.”
Still, she urged her compatriots to return: “There have been a lot of improvements here. To those suffering [in Dadaab], I tell them, come back to your country.”
Grandi said Maryan’s resilience is a strong example of why the international community must invest in Somalia to ensure that refugees have a basic infrastructure to enable them to restart their lives. He is encouraging development actors like the World Bank to invest in rebuilding Somalia.
“Returns have to be sustainable. That means having houses, but also health facilities, education, employment,” he said.
At a conference last year in Brussels, countries pledged US$110 million to fund the sustainable return and reintegration of Somali refugees. To date, only US$7.2 million of those funds have been received. â€‹