Somali families repatriated from neighbouring Kenya feel let down by Nairobi and the UN refugee agency, and fear for their safety and survival
Families repatriated to Somalia from Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya say they feel abandoned and let down by the UN after officials used small cash payments to encourage them to return home, where a hunger and security crisis awaited.
Many travelled back to Somalia only to find themselves in a far worse position than they had been in the refugee camp, with no access to food, shelter or medicines. Having lost their legal refugee status by crossing the border, they were no longer entitled to any help.
Sacdiya Noor, 38, a mother of three children, said she felt betrayed by UN aid workers and the Kenyan authorities, who told her it was safe to go back to Mogadishu in 2015.
“There was no security in the city, no free services and nothing special [to help] returnees,” she said. “There are explosions every day. Food is expensive; you have to pay for everything, even if you are sick.”
Noor is among thousands of Somalis who have now made the long trek back to Kenya, where they felt safer. “I left my country the second time for the safety of my children. I feel betrayed because they [the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Kenyan authorities] told me it is safe to return. I tried my best but it was too much for me to bear as a single mother with no one to stand with me. I am stuck here with no rights. It is like they are saying, ‘You either die of gunshot in Somalia or come back to starve in Dadaab’,” she said.
The plight of repatriated Somalis who fled for the second time emerged as the UK announced a £75m, three-year programme, aimed at tackling the central Mediterranean transit route to Europe, to enable voluntary returns and repatriation and to assist governments in Africa to support asylum seekers.
Since the Kenyan government announced it would close the world’s largest refugee camp and stepped up its repatriation programme to Somalia in 2016, almost 60,000 people, roughly a quarter of the camp’s population, have left. The Kenyan government is no longer registering new arrivals from Somalia or processing asylum claims.
Dadaab camp has been a long-running sore between Kenya, Somalia and the UN, with the Kenyans claiming it represents a security threat. The Nairobi government has been accused of ramping up rhetoric on closure when it has been politically expedient, and currently it is appealing a decision by Kenyan high court judges that shutting down the camp is unlawful.
Noor said her situation has become unbearable since she returned to Dadaab 10 months ago, explaining that her lack of official refugee status means she has to rely on the generosity of others in sharing meagre rations with her and her children.
She is far from alone. Other asylum seekers and refugees who spoke to the Guardian from inside Dadaab, some of whom had been displaced twice, told similar stories. They talked of the danger, persecution and hunger they saw in Somalia.
The severe drought, which has brought Somalia to the brink of famine, comes alongside the UN’s own warnings that the country is in the grip of a cholera and measles outbreak. After the failure of this year’s rains, the number of Somali people forced to leave their villages and land has reached more than 1.7 million.
Last September, a Human Rights Watch report said refugees in Dadaab were effectively being forced to return to Somalia in a major breach of international law, since the 1951 refugee convention forbids the return or “refoulement” of refugees to countries where they may be at risk. HRW criticised the UNHCR for not giving refugees accurate information about the security situation.
Somali children repatriated from Kenya’s Dadaab camp play in a camp for displaced people in Mogadishu. Photograph: Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP
On the outskirts of Ifo II, one of four camps making up Dadaab, Madina Issack, 21, said she left her homeland for the second time because she feared for her life. Issack, a mother of four, from Saakow, a town in the Juba region that is under al-Shabaab control, said she fled with her husband last November after he was arrested for smoking.
“Al-Shabaab don’t like the people who come from Kenya,” said Issack. “They accuse them of spying for the Kenyan government and execute them in public.”
The family first returned to the relative safety of Kismayo, but were forced to move after discovering there was little support for returnees and displaced people. “Some of the people we travelled with were welcomed by their relatives in the city, but we had no one to help us,” Issack added. “The little support we received from UNHCR finished in a few weeks so we went ahead to settle in our hometown in Saakow. It is easy to get into the town but very difficult to get out.
“After staying nine months trying to get used to life, my husband was arrested by al-Shabaab. He was later released on bail but we had to run away and seek asylum in Kenya again.”
The UNHCR estimates there are 3,570 unregistered Somalis in Dadaab, a third of whom arrived in 2017. Only 122 of them have been repatriated, it said, 79 of whom cited security concerns as the reason for their return.
But refugee groups say this is likely to be an underestimate. Victor Nyamori, from Amnesty International in Kenya, said: “There are large numbers of refugees who were given money by the UNHCR and the government, and they do not want to identify themselves.”
The Refugee Council of Kenya, an organisation that monitors the border, said an estimated 11,100 people had crossed the border from Somalia into Kenya since January.
Nimca Samatar, one of the refugee community leaders in Ifo II camp, said she has seen hundreds of Somalis entering the camp in the past few months. “People are coming every day, just like [during] the 2011 famine, they are fleeing the drought with malnourished children and elderly,” said Samatar.
“We collect some food rations from other refugees and distribute them to the new arrivals but that is like a drop in the ocean. They need shelter, food, medicine and protection. Kenya must register these people, and I would urge the UNHCR and other agencies to support them, otherwise they will die in front us.”
The UNHCR said that while the security situation remains a “matter for concern”, it only supports returns to specific areas that are considered safe and have good humanitarian access. It also monitors the situation with regard to returnees alongside the Norwegian Refugee Council, it said.
Yvonne Ndege, the UNHCR’s spokesperson in Kenya, said: “The UNHCR has been sharing updated ‘country of origin information’ with refugees in order to allow them to make well-informed decisions on the situation in the main areas of return, notably about drought and cholera. This has prompted many to reconsider their return to Somalia. The impact of drought and cholera has regularly been discussed during cross-border meetings since January 2017 and this situation has, for instance, prompted suspension of the support to return to Baidoa, which is still in force.”
The UN agency is not allowed to carry out formal registration, she said, but it continues to advocate the registration of all new arrivals and undocumented persons in the Dadaab camps.
Of the 122 returnees in Dadaab who had been repatriated, she said: “While only one case has been reactivated, those coming back have access to basic services such as education and health. The situation of this group is under close review despite the fear of the government that a swift and systematic reactivation would likely be a pull factor for the 67,267 who have returned so far to Somalia.”
The Kenyan government denied any suggestion that the returns are forced.
While the number of Somalis repatriated has slowed in recent weeks, families in Dadaab are continuing to make what one father described as “one of the most painful decisions I have ever taken in my life”.
In a transit centre in Dadaab, waiting for his departure to the homeland he left 10 years ago, Madar Gaas, 47, feared what lay ahead for his family, but felt he had no alternative. “Kenya asked us to leave and then UN reduced the food rations,” he said. “Then other aid agencies started to pull out of the camp, scaling down the live-saving assistance we used to get. That is why I volunteered to go back to Somalia, even though I am risking the future of my children. There is no free education and healthcare in Somalia.
“You can be killed any time in Somalia. I am concerned about the safety of my children, and because of the drought everything is expensive.”