Newly-arrived refugees run away from a cloud of dust at the Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab, near Kenya's border with Somalia in Garissa County, Kenya, July 16, 2011.
NAIROBI – Kenya’s repatriation of Somali refugees does not meet international standards for voluntary refugee return, Human Rights Watch has said.
In May 2016, the government of Kenya announced plans to repatriate Somali refugees and close its Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps due to national security interests.
Many refugees living in Kenya’s Dadaab camp, home to at least 263,000 Somalis, said they had agreed to return home because they feared Kenya would force them out anyway, HRW said.
HRW said they visited Dadaab refugee camp in August 2016, three months after Kenya announced the closure of the camps and found that Somali refugees were actually choosing to go home due to unfavourable factors such as fear of forced deportation after the November deadline.
According to HRW, refugees said they did not have adequate information on conditions in Somalia, and that a US$400 United Nations cash grant was being dangled as bait for them to return to Somalia.
The refugees said that these were some of the factors prompting many camp residents to return now to Somalia “where they face danger, persecution, and hunger”.
“The Kenyan authorities are not giving Somali refugees a real choice between staying and leaving, and the UN refugee agency isn’t giving people accurate information about security conditions in Somalia,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “There is no way these returns can be considered voluntary.”
The 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits refoulement, the return of a refugee “in any manner whatsoever” to a place where their life or freedom would be threatened, said HRW in a statement on the update on the situation of Somali refugees living in the Dadaab camp.
“Under international refugee practice, repatriation is only considered voluntary if refugees have a genuinely free choice about whether to return and are fully informed about conditions in their home country,” said HRW.
HRW recommends that the Kenyan government publicly declares that Somali refugees fearing return will be allowed to remain, and that UNHCR and its partners fully and accurately inform refugees about security conditions in Somalia.
Anything short of this would be considered refoulement, said HRW, adding that Kenyan government officials they had interviewed after the announcement to repatriate have held that Somali refugees must return to their country and that international donors can continue assisting them from there.
HRW also noted a new development where some Somalis who agreed to return to Somalia after spending years as refugees in Dadaab have fled back to Kenya a second time because of ongoing violence and lack of basic services in Somalia.
Human Rights Watch found that newly-arrived Somali asylum seekers and refugees who were not able to re-establish themselves in Somalia were being denied access to refugee registration or asylum procedures in Dadaab. This left them without legal status and food rations.
Many of the estimated 335,000 Somali refugees in Kenya’s camps and cities fled the conflict in their home country in the 1990s, or are their children or grandchildren. Over the past decade, a new wave of refugees have fled a combination of drought, ongoing violence and abuse, including by the armed Islamist group Al-Shabaab, which is at war with the Somali government, said HRW.
In November 2013, Kenya, Somalia, and UNHCR signed a tripartite agreement for voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees that said both countries and UNHCR would make sure Somalis returned voluntarily and in safety and dignity.
The Kenyan government and UNHCR are conducting a verification exercise to reduce the number of refugees counted as living in Dadaab by determining whether people living in the camp are entitled to be there.
HRW says that so far only 18,000 Somali refugees had returned to Somalia from Dadaab refugee camp in 2016, including the 10,000 who returned after the camp closure announcement in May.
UNHCR is silent on what will happen to refugees who refuse to return to Somalia after the November deadline. During the camp visit by HRW, refugees and asylum seekers consistently said that the Kenyan government officials were putting direct and indirect pressure on them to return to Somalia.
UNHCR has steadily increased the number of areas designated as areas of return in Somalia, and will shortly be expanding them to 12. UNHCR told Human Rights Watch that the expansion was based on the access aid agencies had to the designated areas and, for the more recent expansion, on an assessment that significant numbers of refugees were returning to specific areas.