NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — East Africa's regional bloc said Saturday it gradually will allow the hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees sheltering in its countries to work and will include them in planning efforts.
It is a step forward for nations like Kenya, which hosts the world's largest refugee camp and where refugees are not allowed to work, but it's not enough, said an Amnesty International expert on refugees, Victor Nyamori.
"It must be backed up by concrete action," he said. East African countries already are signatories of U.N. treaties that say refugees should be allowed to work but that has not been put into practice, he said. Only Uganda seems to have progressive legislation to let refugees work and settle, he said.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development summit on Somali refugees comes as Somalia again faces the threat of famine, with about half its estimated 12 million population threatened. Droughts and instability already have displaced more than 2 million Somalis in recent decades, with about 900,000 sheltering in regional countries.
Even as the region faces the prospect of a fresh wave of Somali refugees, there have been efforts to urge existing ones to return home.
The summit comes weeks after a court blocked Kenya's plan to close the world's largest refugee camp in May. The camp, Dadaab, shelters more than 200,000 Somalis.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Saturday repeated his government's allegation that Dadaab has become a training ground for al-Shabab extremists, though authorities have not provided proof. The Somalia-based al-Shabab group has launched more than 100 attacks on Kenya as retribution after it sent troops to Somalia to fight the extremists.
The U.N. refugee agency has urged Kenya to look alternative means of settlement, while human rights groups have accused Kenya of pressuring the Somalis to return home.
"Countries hosting Somali refugees have to find alternative solutions for them locally, focusing on the socio-economic inclusion of refugees," said George Okoth-Obbo, the U.N. refugee agency's assistant high commissioner for operations. Though voluntary returns to Somalia continue, insecurity and other constraints are restricting their number, he said.
The regional bloc on Saturday committed to finding alternative means of settling refugees, but it did not say when any changes would take effect.
"For far too long, we have been investing in the management of refugees and (internally displaced people). Time has come for us to invest in their God-given ability to manage themselves," said Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed.
East Africa also faces the world's fastest-growing refugee crisis in Uganda, where hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese have fled in recent months.
The regional bloc also includes Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan.