Somali refugees in Kenya fear early return


A plan to reintegrate some of the 600,000 Somalis in Kenya worries refugees and some local businesses.

Will Swanson

Garissa County, Kenya – Kenya and Somalia agreed last week to a deal with the UN to reintegrate some of the 600,000 refugees in Kenya back into Somalia. But many are wondering whether the country is ready for the returnees.

Medina Ibrahim Issack, 46, left Kismayo, Somalia, in 2011. Faced with growing insecurity, a sick husband unable to work and four children to feed, the food seller had few options but to take the gamble of a better life for her family in Kenya.

Using their savings to rent a driver and vehicle, the family travelled for two days to reach the Kenyan border and safety. Along the way they were ambushed by gunmen, firing in the air as they approached the vehicle. They arrived at the border with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. “We felt welcomed in Kenya. Finally we felt safe,” she said.

Today, Medina lives with her family in one of Dadaab’s sprawling refugee camps in Kenya’s remote north-east. The Kenyan government is hoping she will return home under the new deal. But even if the situation in Kismayo improves over the next few years, Medina has decided not to return to Somalia. “We don’t want to go. We’re not happy about leaving,” she said. “But the people who will return, let them return.”

The repatriation agreement comes at a time of turbulence in Kenya, in the wake of the recent attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall and battles between the Kenya army and al-Shabab fighters in Kismayo.

“We have welcomed with open arms refugees fleeing from insecurity in neighbouring countries, but we won’t allow them to harm us,” said Kenyan Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku. “Some refugees have abused our hospitality to plan and launch terror attacks from the safety of refugee camps. This can’t be allowed.”

‘Fully established people’

Garissa County, which borders Somalia, is home to most of Kenya’s 600,000 Somali refugees. Smugglers and bandits can easily hide within the refugee population.

“The Kenyan-Somali border has been the main entrance of small weapons into the country, which have had devastating effects on the security of the country,” said Garissa County commissioner Rashid Harun Khator.

Crime, environmental degradation and the re-emergence of diseases like polio have also affected the areas around the sprawling refugee camps, said the commissioner.

But others in Kenya’s government are reluctant to see the refugees leave, having witnessed an increase in infrastructure spending and development in the once isolated region.

In Fafi constituency, home to two large refugee camps in Garissa County, a local official, Mustafa Abdirashid, said the camps have brought roads, electricity, schools and hospitals to his area.

“Actually the presence of refugees has brought a lot of opportunities in these areas,” he said. “My people are mostly nomads. Their type of lifestyle is mostly pastoralism, but now they’ve supplemented their lives with the opportunities that have come with the refugees.”

Even if given the opportunity, Mustafa Abdirashid is not convinced the refugees will choose to go back to Somalia. “These are fully established people, they’ve got businesses. They’ve got everything there,” he said. “I doubt that these people will leave any time soon.”

Neither Kenyan nor Somali

The great influx of refugees to Kenya began in 1992 following the collapse of the Somali government, and some Somalis have lived in Dadaab for up to 23 years.

One such refugee is Mahamed Salah Ahmed, who arrived on a camel from Afmedow in Somalia in 1992. Today he is married with ten children, all of whom were born in Kenya. When he first arrived in Kenya 20 years ago, the camp was a small collection of shelters and the area too insecure to venture far from the camp. There were no schools and just a few clinics.

Today, the refugee camp is a bustling town where Mahamed Salah runs a small business to make a supplementary income for his family while his children attend school. “When we came, some of us didn’t have children but now I have ten,” he said. “They all have birth certificates. ‘Kenyan / Refugee’ is written on them.”

Mahamed Salah’s problem is a common one in Dadaab: His children are neither Kenyan nor Somali. The Kenyan government still has not decided what to do with children of refugees who are effectively stateless, one of a myriad of complex issues facing people who have established new lives in Kenya.

Mahamed Salah will return to Somalia one day, but not yet. He fears that it is not safe for his wife and children to travel to the country. “Somalia is not peaceful, and it’s impossible to return back with the current situation,” he said.

What awaits in Somalia

Local refugee advocacy groups and some NGOs are also concerned about the dilemma for Kenya’s Somali refugee community.

Abdullahi Mohamed Abdi of WomanKind Kenya, an NGO that works in Dadaab’s camps conducting gender-based violence education and psycho-social support for Somali refugees, said there are currently more questions than answers for the refugee community.

It’s unclear who will be responsible for their welfare once they reach Somalia. “If they become an [internally displaced person] in their own country, the UNHCR has no mandate to give them support,” he said.

Dadaab’s refugee community has yet to see the details of the new repatriation plan, and many are disappointed that the Somali government didn’t visit them before the agreement was signed.

They are also worried about being repatriated without enough support from the government, and are concerned about what will happen when they reach Somalia.

“The government of Somalia in one way or another is taking responsibility, but we very well know that the majority of the areas are in the hands of al-Shabab,” Abdullahi Mohamed said. “For any person who wants to go back and to have security provided by the central government, that means they can only go back to where there is a central government. That is only in Mogadishu, the capital city.”

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