As Planning for Repatriation Ramps Up, Asylum Seekers Continue to Flee Somalia

By Mark Yarnell
Women and children in a camp for internally displaced people in Mogadishu, Somalia.

At the same time that the Kenyan government is ramping up pressure for Somali refugees to return home, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has released new international protection considerations for people fleeing southern and central Somalia. The guidelines highlight the continued risks that these people face and stress the need for ongoing international protection of Somali asylum-seekers.

Nearly 60,000 Somalis were newly displaced last year due to armed conflict, persecution, evictions, and floods. There are indeed some refugees who have chosen to return to newly-stabilized areas. But overall, conditions in Somalia are in no way conducive to large-scale returns, and asylum space must be preserved for those continuing to flee.

According to the UNHCR guidelines, civilians are bearing the brunt of ongoing conflict between Al Shabab militants and other armed groups. Al Shabab has increased its attacks against public spaces, such as restaurants and market areas, as well as high-profile targets in Mogadishu like the Banadir High Court and the United Nations aid agency compound. Earlier this month, a UNHCR vehicle convoy was attacked near the Mogadishu airport, killing several bystanders. And just last Friday, Al-Shabab carried out an attack on Somalia’s presidential palace.

Civilians have also been caught in the cross-fire during assaults by the African Union peacekeeping force (AMISOM) and the Somali National Army against Al Shabab strongholds. AMISOM has made no secret that another major offensive against Al Shabab is coming very soon, which is likely to cause more civilians to flee.  

In Al Shabab controlled areas, many local residents face persecution on a daily basis. As the updated UNHCR considerations note, the group continues “to commit grave abuses against civilians such as killings of prominent peace activists, community leaders, clan elders, and their family members for their role in peace-building, and beheadings of people accused of ‘spying for’ and collaborating with Somali national forces and affiliated militias.”

When I recently met with Somali refugees in Nairobi, a number of them said they were scared to return to home because they would be accused of being traitors simply because they had lived in Kenya. (Roughly 4,000 Kenyan troops are currently deployed as part of AMISOM.) One young woman even told us that her brother was killed by Al Shabab upon reaching his village.

It is also important to note that in Somalia, the absence of Al Shabab does not necessarily mean stability. In fact, power vacuums can lead to devastating battles for control. For example, months after the city of Kismayo was ‘liberated’ from the terrorist group’s control, fierce clan conflict led to dozens of deaths.    

In November, the governments of Kenya and Somalia, in addition to UNHCR, signed a Tripartite Agreement on the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees. The deal establishes mechanisms to facilitate the return of Somali refugees to Somalia if they choose to do so.  It is not a plan for returns and does not set a date by which Somalis must leave Kenya.

Unfortunately, high-level Kenyan officials have been contradicting key tenets of the Agreement by pushing for Somalis to leave sooner rather than later. While visiting the Dadaab refugee camp shortly after the Agreement was announced, Kenyan Secretary of Interior Joseph Ole Lenku stated, “All the camps should be closed and the debate on whether or not it is appropriate has been passed by time."  That same month, Kenyan Vice President William Ruto said that under the terms of the Agreement, “we estimate that the repatriation process could take up to three years,” even though there is in fact no required timeline on returns. Ruto continued that “the singing of the agreement indicated that Somalia is now on a clear path to recovery and stability.”

Indeed, certain areas of Somalia are stabilizing. But, as the UNHCR guidelines indicate, the situation across much of the country is not nearly as rosy as some like to portray. The Kenyan government must not only stop calling for refugees to return prematurely, but also ensure asylum space for those who are continuing to flee Somalia. Kenya has been a generous host of Somali refugees for many years, but the time is not right for large-scale returns.