Janessa Schilmoeller NAMIBIA — As many as 14,353 Somali refugees have returned home from Kenya since January, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) reported over the weekend. Up to 1,029 people reported to have moved to Somalia thus far in April — a sign that increased security operations in the Horn of Africa appear to be contributing […]
NAMIBIA — As many as 14,353 Somali refugees have returned home from Kenya since January, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) reported over the weekend. Up to 1,029 people reported to have moved to Somalia thus far in April — a sign that increased security operations in the Horn of Africa appear to be contributing to more stability in the conflict-ridden country.
Throughout the region, 1,879 refugees are reported to have spontaneously returned to Somalia from Kenya, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia.
The newest UNHCR report cites “food, livelihood support, agricultural/pastoralist support, shelter, transport, health, protection from conflict, water, equal access to aid, social/clan protection and protection from direct attacks” as the key priority needs of refugees moving across borders.
UNHCR continues to support humanitarian protection missions in areas vacated by the notorious al-Qaeda affiliated group, Al-Shabaab, in order to track returns of refugees and internally-displaced persons (IDPs) and to assess their possible protection needs.
“Currently, UNHCR together with the Protection and Shelter Clusters, are in discussion on the best approach to take to provide assistance and services, to those who have returned,” the report said.
As of April 17, there were 1,037,554 Somali refugees in the region, mainly hosted in Kenya, Yemen, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Tanzania and Uganda. An additional 1.1 million Somalis are internally displaced within Somalia.
Refugees have been fleeing violence in Somalia mainly since 1991, when General Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown and militia groups, including Al-Shabaab, began competing for control.
Somalia was a leading country of nationality for refugees entering the U.S. in 2011, comprising 5.6 percent of the total incoming refugee population. Hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees currently reside in the United States.
Strides towards stability
After decades of instability, Somalia removed its title as a failed state in September 2012 by establishing a federal government under newly-elected President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who won the country’s first legitimate election in 42 years.
Over the past seven months, the new government has received international acknowledgement from the United States, the European Union and the United Nations for its strides towards political stability and economic development.
After officially recognizing Somalia’s progress towards stability in January, President Barack Obama paved the way for future cooperation between the two nations in early April by giving Secretary of State John Kerry the option of providing military aid to Somalia for the first time in two decades.
One week later, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) officially recognized the government of Somalia, ending a 22-year break in relations. The IMF will not lend money to Somalia until it pays off a $352 million debt, but the organization is willing to provide technical support and policy advice to the East African nation.
Abdullahi Mohammed Diriye, 46, is among the thousands of refugees in Kenya hoping to find their way back to the new, stabilizing Somalia. “They tell me that security has greatly improved and my once war-torn country is booming with business,” Diriye told news group Sabahi.
Diriye plans to sell his four small businesses and reunite with his family in Mogadishu in order to avoid the increased harassment many refugees have been facing in Kenya as a result of terrorism-related attacks attributed to al-Shabaab and a government directive demanding all Somali refugees return to designated camps or leave the country.
“The option of moving to the camps is out of the equation because I fled the same camps to seek economic independence in 2008,” said Diriye, who hopes to find better economic opportunities upon his return to Somalia.
Hassan Bashow, 37, left Kenya for Mogadishu in early March and opened a mobile phone shop just a week after arriving. “There are many challenges but I believe that my country is on the right track and together we shall overcome them,” he said.
Regional attacks threaten progress
While the Somali government boasts its success in regaining control of several strategic towns since a joint African Union offensive against Islamic militants began in January, recent terror attacks in the region have Somalia’s progress balancing on the edge.
Militants stormed the Supreme Court building in Mogadishu earlier this month, killing as many as 35 people in the biggest assault on the capital since Al-Shabaab was forced out of the area in 2011. Although security in Somalia has improved, Al-Shabaab retains the ability to project force within the country’s capital and even into neighboring countries.
Smaller-scale attacks against churches, nightclubs and public service vehicles by Al-Shabaab affiliates in Nairobi became an external factor for repatriation in 2012 as Kenyans began demanding refugees like Bashow and Diriye return to Somalia.
On Dec. 18, Kenya’s Ministry of State for Immigration and Registration of Persons ordered all refugees in urban areas to return to designated refugee camps or leave the country. At the same time, Kenya also stopped accepting and registering new refugees in urban areas.
Kenya’s High Court temporarily halted the forced relocation of refugees to camps outside Nairobi until cases filed by refugee protection organizations are heard.
However, 20,000 Somali refugees have already left Kenya voluntarily, thereby avoiding relocation to camps known for poor sanitation and high levels of violence.
According to a report by the Heritage Institute, “The Somali government is not ready to accommodate almost 600,000 refugees.”
By the end of the year, the Somali government plans to establish large camps inside Somalia near the Kenyan border to accommodate thousands of incoming Somali refugees.
“Not only is the implementation of this plan unrealistic, but it could also expose vulnerable refugees to dangerous conditions,” the report said, focusing on Kenya’s “Hasty Repatriation.”
In the midst of sporadic terrorist attacks, nearly 10,755 Somalis have sought refuge in neighboring countries compared to the 14,353 refugees who have returned to the country since January 2013.
While some residents continue to flee Somalia in search of a better life, others will take their chances with the new government’s promise of stability. In spite of sporadic militant violence, more refugees are expected to return to Somalia in the coming months, putting pressure on President Mohamud to continue pushing out Al-Shabaab insurgents while simultaneously providing safe housing and economic opportunities to repatriating citizens.