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Somali refugees nervous as Kenya eyes their return

Sunday, July 14, 2013

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Row after row of tin shacks and shelters made of plastic and branches stretch almost as far as the eye can see in the world's largest refugee camp, home to over 427,000 Somalis who fled war.

Dadaab, in northeast Kenya, is a grim place few would choose to call home, but many here are nervous about the growing pressure to leave this camp and return to their unstable homeland some last saw two decades ago.

Kenya, which hosts more than 600,000 Somali refugees, has made clear its ambition to send them back, and is in talks with the government in Mogadishu to start the move.

"I don't know of a stable place in Somalia" to return to, said Abdi Arte, leader of the Kambios section in the sprawling camp, set in arid bushland some 100 kilometres (60 miles) inside Kenya.

"But the government is insisting to have refugees relocated back home."

Last month, Kenya and Somalia signed a deal for "voluntary repatriation", with plans under way to work out how people can start moving back.

Kenya's new government has steered clear of strong-arm statements made last year when Nairobi ordered more than 30,000 refugees living in urban areas to return to remote and overcrowded camps.

But based on past experiences, refugees are worried.

Rights groups have accused Kenyan police of a brutal campaign against Somali refugees, following a string of grenade attacks or shootings inside Kenya blamed on supporters or members of Somalia's Al-Qaeda linked Shebab insurgents.

Human Rights Watch, in a report released in May, documented multiple cases of police rape of Somali refugees.

"The police held the detainees -- sometimes for many days in inhuman and degrading conditions -- while threatening to charge them, without any evidence, with terrorism or public order offences," the report said.

Somali refugees say they are eyed with suspicion by police, even though many of those actually charged for attacks have not been ethnic Somalis.

Impoverished Somalia spiralled into repeated rounds of bloody civil war beginning in 1991, allowing piracy, militia armies and extremist rebels to flourish.

Last year an internationally-backed government took power in Mogadishu, defended by a 17,700-strong African Union force -- including Kenyan troops -- but its control beyond the capital remains fragile at best.

- Eager to leave, but nowhere to go? -

There is no doubt that many refugees long to be able to return to a safe home in Somalia. The problem is whether that is available.

"I want to go back home," said Amina Yussuf, who lives in Dadaab's Ifo 2, a crowded camp, insecure and beset by violence and abductions.

"I fear being raped here in the camp," she added.

More than a million Somalis are refugees in regional nations, the most from a single country after Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the United Nations.

But another million people are displaced inside the country, a sign that Somalia is still very far from the stability needed for large scale return.

"It is not a good time to go back," said Ibrahim Roble, a youth leader in Dadaab's Dagahaley camp, who fled southern Somalia as a child.

"So many of us here in Dadaab are from parts of Somalia that are still unstable."

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who visited Mogadishu and Nairobi this week, stressed that any return to Somalia must be voluntary.

"If we do these returns properly, they can be a positive factor for the development in Somalia," he told reporters in Kenya.

"On the other hand, if huge numbers of refugees go home prematurely, they could contribute to destabilisation."

Many of the youth were born in the camps -- or were too young to remember Somalia when they fled -- and have little knowledge of life back in their home nation.

In the first six months of this year, some 21,000 new Somali refugees were reported arriving in neighbouring nations, according to UNHCR, far lower rates than in recent years, but still outweighing the estimated 12,000 refugees who chose to return to Somalia in that six-month period.

Somalis in Dadaab fled from all across the country and returning home would involve travelling through war-zones controlled by multiple militia forces, including the hardline Shebab.

"We cannot be thrown into fire like that, what is the government's contingency plan?" asked refugee Mohamed Ade.

"We don't understand. It is not the right time for relocating refugees."

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