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Somali Refugees Decry Empty Promises on Return From Dabaab

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Somali refugees who lived for decades in Kenya’s Dadaab camp are returning to Somalia via a repatriation program, only to find a fragile peace and shortage of supplies. New arrivals in Kismayo tell Ashley Hamer they feel let down and afraid.
WRITTEN BYAshley Hamer
PUBLISHED ONs Oct. 11, 2016
READ TIMEApprox. 6 minutes
Img 3932omali children who were educated for years in Kenya's refugee camps are currently not attending classes in Kismayo, their new home.Ashley Hamer
KISMAYO, SOMALIA – On the outskirts of this commercial port town in Somalia’s southernmost, border state of Jubaland, makeshift displacement camps are swelling with vulnerable families.
They are part of a wave of Somali refugees returning from neighboring Kenya under a U.N.-facilitated voluntary repatriation program, which many aid agencies say does not give refugees a genuine choice.
Many returnees are dismayed by what they find upon return to Somalia. Outside Kismayo, some 16,000 newly arrived refugees are currently camped in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in meager shelters that they built themselves, with little access to medical care and no schools.
Women and children are stranded in the makeshift camps outside Kismayo, with little information of the type of help they can expect in rebuilding their lives. (Ashley Hamer)
Women and children are stranded in the makeshift camps outside Kismayo, with little information of the type of help they can expect in rebuilding their lives. (Ashley Hamer)
In 2013, the Kenyan government, United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Somali federal government reached a collaborative agreement on “voluntary repatriation.” UNHCR is tasked with transporting the refugees back to Somalia; most by truck, some by air.
Between December 2014 and the end of September 2016, 30,731 Somali refugees from Dadaab went through the repatriation process. Most of them – 24,630 refugees – returned to Somalia in 2016, amid mounting pressure from the Kenyan government.
Kenya announced in May it would permanently close Dadaab refugee camp – home to more than 320,000 Somalis spanning several generations – and send all Somali refugees home by the end of 2016. Health care services in the camp had already been reduced since 2014, and food rations cut by a third.
Shacks serving as people’s temporary homes, built by the returnees themselves out of material they can find – sheet metal, plastic sacks, cardboard and tree branches. (Ashley Hamer)
Shacks serving as people’s temporary homes, built by the returnees themselves out of material they can find – sheet metal, plastic sacks, cardboard and tree branches. (Ashley Hamer)
Some returnees who arrived in Kismayo this year said they chose repatriation because they could no longer feed their families in Dadaab. Others said they feared being forced to leave Kenya without any support at all if they didn’t; the UNHCR’s repatriation package provides cash allowances of around $2,400 per family of six over a period of six months after their arrival. It is unclear if and what type of support will be available after this period.
Some refugees left spontaneously with the sanctioned waves of returnees and did not register their departure with UNHCR, rendering them ineligible for the repatriation aid package, according to staff at the Kismayo reception center.
Registered refugees can sign up for the voluntary repatriation process in Dadaab's UNHCR center and are eligible for cash allowances once they enter Kismayo. (Ashley Hamer)
Registered refugees can sign up for the voluntary repatriation process in Dadaab’s UNHCR center and are eligible for cash allowances once they enter Kismayo. (Ashley Hamer)
The majority of the returnees are women, children, the elderly and the disabled – “the most vulnerable sectors of society,” according to The American Refugee Committee, an aid group providing some health care and child protection in the camps.
Yet there is very limited health care for the returnees living in the camps, and medical care in Kismayo town is expensive. The camps have few decent running water sources or latrines, leaving thousands of people at risk of disease.
Families arriving in Kismayo discover a fragile town with little infrastructure that cannot provide basic food and shelter, let alone facilitate their resettlement in Somalia.
Without basic sanitation and health care, most refugees feel they are worse off than when they were living in Dadaab. (Ashley Hamer)
Without basic sanitation and health care, most refugees feel they are worse off than when they were living in Dadaab. (Ashley Hamer)
Amid such precarious circumstances, many returnees expressed great concern over how they can possibly restart their lives.
“In Somalia, there’s no water, no schools … despite the promises they made, the U.N. backtracked from them. The house you see there I built myself,” says 44-year-old Hubi Abdullahi Aden, a mother who managed to raise and educate seven children in Dadaab. She, like many others who have returned to Kismayo, fears an impending onset of violence.
According to local officials, Kismayo town is hosting more than 16,000 returnees, while the area has already been sheltering some 40,000 people displaced internally by conflict. (Ashley Hamer)
According to local officials, Kismayo town is hosting more than 16,000 returnees, while the area has already been sheltering some 40,000 people displaced internally by conflict. (Ashley Hamer)
In the months before September, UNHCR and its partners were transporting up to 400 people a day across the border into Somalia. In September, Jubaland state authorities suspended the returns process, saying local services were overwhelmed, and the repatriation process amounted to the “dumping of human beings in an undignified way.”
Local Jubaland authorities say the camps outside Kismayo are spontaneous settlements, and the returnees are essentially “squatting” on land that was not officially set aside for them.
The reception center in Kismayo where the returnees are expected to report. (Ashley Hamer)
The reception center in Kismayo where the returnees are expected to report. (Ashley Hamer)
There is a large reception center in Kismayo that was built in 2014 and is equipped to accommodate up to 500 people per day. Returnees can stay at the reception centre for 48 hours after their arrival, but it is not clear how they are expected to organize their land and shelter after this time, and thousands are soon stranded in the displacement camps.
Meanwhile, the Kismayo area is already sheltering some 40,000 people displaced internally by conflict, and the services available are barely adequate to support a vulnerable host population.
Hubi Abdullahi Aden, 44, returned to Kismayo from Kenya through the repatriation scheme in March. With seven children, she says the aid organizations in Dadaab persuaded her that there was progress and stability in Somalia. Now she regrets coming back. (Ashley Hamer)
Hubi Abdullahi Aden, 44, returned to Kismayo from Kenya through the repatriation scheme in March. With seven children, she says the aid organizations in Dadaab persuaded her that there was progress and stability in Somalia. Now she regrets coming back. (Ashley Hamer)
Further, despite some significant gains in stability, Somalia is essentially a war zone. Fighting is ongoing between al-Shabab militants and the Western-backed African Union and Somali national forces.
Kismayo was only liberated from al-Shabab in 2012. A fragile peace is maintained by local security forces, but outside the town’s premises, much of Jubaland state remains an inaccessible battleground with dangers of violence spilling over to other parts of the country.
Jubaland State's justice minister Adam Ibrahim Aw Hirsi says that the international community should have verified that each signatory of the repatriation agreement could do what they promised. (Ashley Hamer)
Jubaland State’s justice minister Adam Ibrahim Aw Hirsi says that the international community should have verified that each signatory of the repatriation agreement could do what they promised. (Ashley Hamer)
Contrary to the terms they accepted when signing the repatriation agreement, the federal government of Somalia cannot always access semi-autonomous Jubaland to support and resettle the returnees due to instability, says Jubaland State’s justice minister Adam Ibrahim Aw Hirsi.
“On one hand we are conducting national elections, on another we are fighting al- Shabab and [on] a third hand we are dealing with returning refugees and the IDPs [internally displaced people] that were already here, and our own communities,” Hirsi says. “We don’t have the financial and human capacity to deal with all of this.”
Meanwhile, a central condition of the repatriation package is that the returnees give up their refugee status in Kenya. If violence worsens in Somalia, they will be left with few options.
Somali returnees and IDPs build boats on Kismayo’s beachfront. (Ashley Hamer)
Somali returnees and IDPs build boats on Kismayo’s beachfront. (Ashley Hamer)
About the Author
Ashley Hamer
Ashley Hamer is a journalist and photographer reporting on East Africa.
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Outrage Over Unaccompanied Minors Highlights Massive E.U. Data Gap
While headlines about “missing children” stir moral outcry, the reality is that E.U. data on unaccompanied minors is full of holes and discrepancies. Researchers Nando Sigona and Rachel Humphris argue for better data to address the real needs of refugee children.
Greece migrants14A child looks on in an unfinished building site, near the train station at Thessaloniki, Greece, which migrants and other refugees use as a temporary shelter. AP/Mstyslav Chernov
EARLY IN 2015, the E.U.’s law enforcement agency, Europol, denounced the disappearance of 10,000 unaccompanied minors with a warning that they may be victims of criminal networks. Despite questions over the validity of this figure, it sparked a moral outcry. The “killer number,” as charities and aid agencies privately referred to it, was too powerful a call to action to bother deconstructing.
Valid numbers, however, do matter.
A more rigorous scrutiny of the available data can improve our understanding of the phenomenon of “missing” children and its main structural causes, and help refocus policy efforts to address the actual situation of child migrants.
Child migration to Europe is diverse. While unaccompanied minors are prominent in the public debate and official data, other children – particularly undocumented minors or those with asylum-seeking parents – are often invisible in data and policy.
Over 1 million people reached Italy and Greece by sea in 2015. The large majority of them are young men and women, including 250,000 children. According to data from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration, 94 percent of these children came to Greece, while a far smaller contingent – around 16,500 – arrived in Italy.
A closer look at the data on children arriving in Italy and Greece shows remarkable differences in their countries of origin and whether the children traveled alone.
The overwhelming majority of minors from Egypt – 98 percent – and Gambia – 96 percent – traveled alone on the treacherous sea crossing from North Africa. The opposite was the case for the young Syrians.
In Greece, where Syrians and Afghans make up the largest national groups of migrants arriving by sea, Syrian children are more likely to travel with someone responsible for them, but this is not the case for Afghan minors.
Top five nationalities and travel arrangements of under-18 arrivals in Italy in 2015. Elaboration: Nando Sigona; Source: IOM
Top five nationalities and travel arrangements of under-18 arrivals in Italy in 2015. Elaboration: Nando Sigona; Source: IOM
Sea arrivals should not be conflated with asylum data. Not all migrants arriving by boat apply for asylum, and not everyone applying for asylum came on a boat. E.U. asylum data shows that 1.26 million first-time asylum applications were lodged in 2015, and 365,000 of the applicants were under 18 years old. Only 90,000 of them were recorded as unaccompanied minors.
Yet, there are substantial differences in international, European and national definitions of unaccompanied children. These definitions are important because different categories provide different levels ofprotection in law or in practice.
Some countries, including Italy, Spain and France, afford protection to unaccompanied children mostly on the basis of age and separation from relatives, leaving the consideration of the child’s asylum claim as secondary. In other countries, the status of the child’s asylum claim is paramount and is initiated at an early stage. This can lead to the quick dismissal of claims made by minors from so-called safe countries. There have been attempts to achieve some coherence at the E.U. level, but these have not always been successful.
There are also significant differences in the way data are collected on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and how identification occurs. In the U.K., each of the four nations differs in the way they collect and publish their statistics.
Data on unaccompanied minors in the E.U. is aggregated from national statistics. As children may be moving between European countries, this process paradoxically can produce two opposite results: double counting and missing children.
A child may be recorded as unaccompanied upon arrival in Italy, for example, and then join family members elsewhere in Europe and lodge an asylum application as an “accompanied” minor. The paradox here is that a child can be counted as missing in Italy, reappear in another E.U. country and then be counted again under a different bureaucratic label. This phenomenon may be more widespread than many assume.
This can happen even within countries. Evidence from the research projectBecoming Adult, for example, shows that double counting of unaccompanied minors is common in Italy.
E.U. data collection has struggled to adjust to the rapid movement of people across European borders. For example, age and gender are not often disaggregated for children arriving at the E.U.’s southern borders, in all transit countries, or for all dependents in asylum claims.
Disaggregated data would reveal the hitherto invisible children in Europe who are identified as “accompanied.” This is crucial because the majority of migrant and refugee children who reach Europe by sea are accompanied.
There is also an absence of data on family reunification and deficiencies in data on detention and return, particularly those who arrived as unaccompanied minors but have since reached 18 years of age.
The Europol announcement was far too appealing for well-meaning NGOs, advocates and politicians who were genuinely concerned with the plight of this invisible army of potential slaves. While the existence of cases of exploitation and trafficking is unquestionable, scrutiny of the data raises questions over the magnitude of the phenomenon and how Europol reached its figures.
Better data can improve our understanding of what drives unaccompanied children to go missing and help us to refocus our efforts to address the structural causes of the phenomenon, not least the E.U.’s policy and practices towards these children, in order to improve the situation of lone refugee and migrant children.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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