DADAAB, Kenya – A year ago, 20-year-old Ismael Ahmed was filled with expectations. With the help of a U.N. voluntary repatriation program, he returned to Somalia after spending all his teenage years in Kenya’s sprawling Dadaab refugee resettlement.
“I was happy to go back home when I was assured of good security, education and food,” he said. “I was given $400 and promised every benefit I enjoyed in Dadaab.”
Ahmed had fled to Dadaab at the age of 13, along with his three sisters, after the militant group al-Shabaab killed their parents in Somalia.
When he returned to his homeland last year, he was horrified to find continuing bloodshed and few ways to study or make a living.
Somalia is currently facing its most devastating drought in decades. In the worst-hit parts of the country, people are starving to death. Al-Shabaab attacks are a constant threat. One bombing in the capital city of Mogadishu three months ago killed more than 300 people.
Ahmed, like many other Somali returnees, decided to return once again to Kenya.
“I regret going back to Somalia,” Ahmed said in Dadaab, as he echoed others’ claims that U.N. pledges of assistance with healthcare, housing and education did not materialize. “They transported us back to Somalia and dumped us there. I have decided to come back and continue with my education.”
Shrinking the World’s Largest Camp
Dadaab, a complex of camps in northern Kenya that have sheltered hundreds of thousands of Somalis for a generation, remains one of the biggest refugee settlements in the world. However, its population has fallen dramatically in recent years.
Kenya has repeatedly threatened to close the camp, including after a deadly attack on a nearby university in Garissa in 2015. Since then, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) has intensified its voluntary repatriation program for Somali refugees from Dadaab, established in a 2013 tripartite agreement with Kenya and Somalia.
Under the program, refugees receive a cash grant of $200 per person upon leaving the camp and another $200 upon arrival in Somalia. Refugees are also assured of utensils and other household items and promised six months of food assistance.
Dadaab now has a population of around 240,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers; down from more than 450,000 residents in 2012, when it was the largest refugee settlement in the world. More than 74,000 Somali refugees have voluntarily returned to Somalia since December 2014.
Waiting with her three children in Dadaab to board a bus for Somalia, 40-year-old
Somalia is my country. It is my home.
Baidoa in western Somalia, Kismayu on the Indian Ocean coast and Mogadishu.
At this pace – said Abdullahi Farah, a community elder at Ifo, one of Dadaab’s five camps – all Somali refugees will be back home soon. The only holdup is the time it takes for UNHCR to process paperwork, he said, predicting that more people will return once the rainy season ends.
“The rate at which people are registering at UNHCR offices to go back to Somalia shows that this camp will no longer be there by the end of 2018,” he said.
‘Life is Hell’
Yet complicating this picture is a slower but steady flow of people traveling in the opposite direction.
Around 30,000 Somalis have fled to Kenya since the repatriation began, according to UNHCR. There are some 3,570 unregistered Somalis in Dadaab who arrived early in 2017, said Denis Kuindje, UNHCR senior protection coordinator at Dadaab.
“We have refugees who are returning back to the camp after repatriation and we are finding out why they are coming back. … We understand there are places in Somalia that still have security concerns and lack of social amenities,” said Kuindje.
The Refugee Council of Kenya, an organization that monitors the border, said in November that an estimated 11,100 people had crossed the border from Somalia into Kenya since January.
Human rights groups have warned that refugees in Dadaab were returning to Somalia under duress because of Kenyan government pressure. Dwindling aid and mounting refugee debts added to the compulsion to return. Many went back to overcrowded displacement camps in Somalia, where they were dismayed by the lack of services. Some faced difficulties accessing aid.
Ali Haji, 15, said he snuck back to Dadaab camp with three friends last month because they had nothing to eat and nowhere to live in Somalia.
“I can’t stay in Somalia,” he said. “There is no food to eat and people are starving to death. I have come here so that I can get something to eat.”
Ismael said more refugees were returning to the camp once they discovered the true extent of the security conditions and the dearth of assistance in Somalia.
“There’s no food, water, toilet, shelter and education. People live in fear of attack by militants,” he said. “Life is hell in Somalia.”