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EXCLUSIVE: Returning Somali refugees feel trapped, betrayed by UNHCR

by Judy Maina,

KISMAYO – For Ambaro Hassan, the reality of leaving Dadaab camp in which she lived for more than 13 years was a decision that could hardly come into her mind given the insecurity in her country, thanks to the peace and the flow of daily assistance by aid agencies operating in the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya.

However, her conscious decision was short-lived, thanks to the UNHCR employees who walked into her home made of iron sheets, bringing an offer hard to resist for her with the condition of returning home.

“They said to me: You go back to Somalia, and we shall provide a better life than you are in now, including daily food, housing and clean water.” Hassan said, quoting words by the UNHCR officers.

She knows painfully well that despite promises by UNHCR, life is pushing her hard at home, and no one has since came to her assistance.

With no employment and daily food to survive, Mrs. Hassan, an unemployed mother of eight says UNHCR’s policies are disconnected from the realities on the ground.

“Empty promises by those whom we put our trust in are making our lives so miserable.” she said with tears running down to her check inside her makeshift home in a sunbaked camp in kismayo town.

Despite pressure by Kenyan government which forced some of the refugees to return home, Hassan says that UNHCR’s promises made many who would otherwise stay on in Dadaab to register voluntarily return to Somalia with the hope of a better welfare.

According to the New-York based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch, Kenya’s repatriation program for Somali refugees, fueled by fear and misinformation, does not meet international standards for voluntary refugee return.

“Many refugees living in Kenya’s sprawling Dadaab camp, home to at least 263,000 Somalis, say they have agreed to return home because they fear Kenya will force them out if they stay.” The watchdog said in a report issued last month.

The rights group which visited the camp also documented cases of forced repatriation with refugees described intimidation by the Kenyan government, silence over alternative options that would allow them to remain in Kenya, inadequate information on conditions in Somalia, and a US$400 UN cash grant they would forfeit if they were deported later this year.

“The refugees said that these factors were prompting many camp residents to return now to Somalia, where they face danger, persecution, and hunger.” The report said.

Hassan;s story is parts of series of tales shared by many of the returning refugees who are struggling to make ends meet, having taken the $400 incentive cash provided by UNHCR.

“We fled Somalia because of specific problems and those problems are still there,” said “Sahra,” a 42-year-old woman from Hiraan region who has signed up to return to Somalia told HRW.

“It’s not the right time for us to go back. But every day the Kenyan government is telling us that we have to go, and UNHCR is not giving us any different information… I said I will go back as we have no other option.”

Meanwhile misinformation by UNHCR about the situation in Somalia was attributed to the return of many Somali refugees who are now languishing refugee camps in the impoverished horn of Africa nation.

“The information that UNHCR provides to refugees in Dadaab seeking to make an informed choice about returning, however, is mostly superficial and out of date, and sometimes misleading, Human Rights Watch said.

As of August, according to UNHCR, there were 263,000 Somali refugees in Dadaab, a 75,000 reduction from the 338,000 count at the end of July. More than 24,000 Somalia refugees had returned to Somalia from Dadaab since the start of the repatriation process in December 2014. Of that total, 18,110 returned in 2016, 10,000 after the camp closure announcement in May.

“UNHCR is aware that south-central Somalia is in no way conducive to large-scale refugee returns,” Frelick said. “UNHCR should not facilitate any returns until Kenya says those afraid to go home can stay in Kenya and UNHCR provides refugees with accurate information about what they will face when they go home.”

The development comes at a time the southern Somalia port city of Kismayo town alone received over 16000 refugees from Dadaab following negotiations with UNHCR which assured it would help cover their humanitarian needs.

However, Jubbaland administration which was tasked with hosting refugees in Kismayo has called for aid agencies including UN agencies to take part in making ‘realistic and thoughtful safe secure’ to assist the returning refugees.

UNHCR spokesman did not respond to a request seeking comment.

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