U.N. refugee chief to visit Kenya to plan return of Somali refugees

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 21, 2015 11:34 AM

By Katy Migiro

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The head of the U.N. refugee agency will visit Kenya in early May to discuss plans to repatriate more than 335,800 Somali refugees following a massacre by Somali Islamists at a Kenyan university.

Kenya has given the United Nations three months to close Dadaab refugee camp, one of the largest in the world.

Kenya has said in the past that al Shabaab militants use the camp as a hideout. It is about an hour's drive from Garissa, where militants attacked the university on April 2, killing 148 people.

"The idea is to have a pledging conference so we will be discussing that when the high commissioner comes," said Raouf Mazou, the U.N. refugee agency's (UNHCR) representative in Kenya.

He could not say how much money they would need to fund the mass repatriation.

UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres has visited Dadaab several times, including at the height of the 2011 Somali famine when the camp's population swelled to half a million.

Since then, 50,000 refugees have returned spontaneously, Kenya's foreign minister, Amina Mohamed, told a news conference on Tuesday.

Another 2,000 have been voluntarily repatriated under a pilot scheme launched by UNHCR, Kenya and Somalia in December, she said.

"We are very encouraged because none of them has come back," said Mohamed. "That's already a positive signal for the refugees that are in the camps to do as the others have done -- which is basically to move back to Somalia."

The speed at which Dadaab is closed will depend on funding, Mohamed said.

"If we can move those refugees within the three months, we will do it," she said. "We will be requesting our partners, donors, for resources, that we will use to expedite the repatriation."

UNHCR has urged Kenya to rethink its plan, warning that it is illegal under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention to force refugees back to areas where their lives are threatened.

Aid agencies have also been critical, as conflict and hunger persist across the Horn of Africa nation which has been mired in civil war since 1991.

A UNHCR survey of refugees in Dadaab found less than 3 percent intended to return to Somalia within the next two years, the U.N. says in its latest east African bulletin.

The remaining 97 percent said they were not ready, due to insecurity, lack of employment, housing and basic services.

Mazou said the refugees in Dadaab would like to return home if they could be sure of access to basic services and security.

"So this is what is being worked on," he said. UNHCR, Kenya and Somalia will ensure that returning refugees have access to healthcare, education and jobs, he added.

Mazou was speaking on the steps of Kenya's foreign ministry following a meeting with Mohamed and Somalia's foreign affairs minister, Abdusalam Omer.

"We are ready to receive our people," said Omer. "It will be done humanely, orderly, and quickly."

Kenya hosts the second largest number of refugees in Africa after Ethiopia.

(Reporting by Katy Migiro, Editing by Emma Batha)