The U.N. Is Sending Thousands of Refugees Back Into a War Zone

Kenya’s plan to close the world’s largest refugee camp involves illegal forced repatriations of Somalis. Why is the U.N. helping to carry it out?

KISMAYO, Somalia — For years, Katra Abii dreamed of moving her family back to Somalia. All eight of her children were born in neighboring Kenya, in the world’s largest refugee camp, but she hoped one day they would be able to marry and start families of their own in their home country.

As long as al-Shabab insurgents continued to maim and kill in their quest to topple the weak Somali government, however, she and her children planned to stay put.

Then, in May, Kenya announced its intention to shutter Dadaab, a desolate swath of desert that was home to more than 300,000 refugees, Abii and her children among them, because it claimed al-Shabab had made inroads there. Under pressure from the Kenyan government, which reluctantly hosts the seventh-largest refugee population in the world, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) agreed to accelerate the repatriation of those Somalis who were willing to return home.

Soon, it was sending as many as 1,000 people back to Somalia every day.

But Abii says there is nothing voluntary about UNHCR’s “voluntary” repatriation program, which is partially funded by U.S. government. She agreed to relocate to Somalia in August only because she had been led to believe that the Kenyan government would eventually evict everyone by force. She knew if the army began rounding up refugees and sending them back to Somalia, as it did after a string of terrorist attacks in 2014, there would be no time to take advantage of the limited financial assistance UNHCR was offering to returnees.

So Abii decided to take her children back to Kismayo, even though she knew it wouldn’t be a happy homecoming. Once there, she found that even the bare-bones support they had been promised — schools, health care, a meager cash allowance for food — was insufficient or didn’t exist at all. She and her children ended up in a camp with internally displaced Somalis — people uprooted by the war who hadn’t made it across the border into Kenya. Their new home, one of hundreds of flimsy huts huddled together on a trash-strewn beach, was similar to the one they had left behind in Dadaab. Except it was less secure and there were fewer aid agencies working to keep them alive.

Katra Abii says the Kenyan government forced her to leave Dadaab. Now in Kismayo, she and her eight children often go hungry because vendors here hike up the prices of basic food items when they see her World Food Programme-issued ration card. (TY MCCORMICK | FOREIGN POLICY)

“I was poor in Dadaab, but I am destitute here,” said Abii, whose angular features were framed by a flowing blue headscarf tucked tightly beneath her chin. “The Kenyans told us it’s time to return to your home country. They told us we don’t have a choice.”

Since December 2014, UNHCR has facilitated the return of more than 24,000 refugees to Somalia, all of whom it says went willingly. But as the agency has accelerated the repatriation process to keep pace with Kenyan efforts to close Dadaab, the line between voluntary and involuntary seems to have collapsed. UNHCR now appears to be managing a process that violates the cardinal rule of refugee protection: that refugees and asylum-seekers shall not be returned against their will to any country where they face a threat of persecution.

The principle of non-refoulement, as it is known, is enshrined within the 2013 “tripartite” agreement between UNHCR and the Kenyan and Somali governments that governs the current repatriation process, as well as the 1969 African refugee convention, to which Kenya is a signatory. Evidence that Kenya is subverting these agreements — and that UNHCR is enabling it to do so — has mounted in recent months as rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have documented incidents of intimidation in Dadaab. But interviews conducted by Foreign Policy in the southern Somali port city of Kismayo offer the first concrete evidence that refugees have been sent back against their will, confirming that a campaign of forced repatriation is underway.

This month, more than a dozen returnees from Dadaab told FP in separate interviews that they were intimidated by Kenyan authorities and ultimately felt forced to leave Kenya. The returnees, as well as multiple aid workers and Somali government officials, described a UNHCR-facilitated repatriation process that is not only coercive but haphazardly executed and unsupported by any long-term plan to prevent returnees from becoming de facto refugees in their own country.

“These people are being dumped here with no international support and no plan for how they will be cared for. They have no shelter, no food, no health, and no schools,” said Ibrahim Mohamed Yusuf, the mayor of Kismayo. “We are a small nation reeling from civil war. People are already dying because of a lack of health care. How can we be expected to care for more people?”

A convoy of African Union troops heads toward the town of Merca, about 50 miles north of Mogadishu. (MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB | AFP)

Somalia is still at war. A 22,000-strong African Union force has expelled al-Shabab from most urban areas, but the al Qaeda-linked group continues to strike at will virtually anywhere in the southern and central portions of the country. It has attacked a landmark hotel less than a block from the presidential palace in Mogadishu three times in the last two years, most recently killing 22 people with a truck bomb on Aug. 30. FP previously documented how this violence has affected returnees from Dadaab, some of whom have already fled back to Kenya a second time.

Even before it began accepting returnees from Kenyan refugee camps, the country housed more than a million displaced Somalis within its borders because of conflict and drought. Most live in crowded camps at the margins of cities, paying so-called “gatekeepers” to avoid being targeted by bandits and militiamen. The few hospitals and schools that are still standing after a quarter century of civil war are mostly private — and prohibitively expensive for all but the richest Somalis. Nationwide, four in 10 people don’t have enough to eat, according to the United Nations.

UNHCR has nonetheless certified certain parts of the country as safe for return, including Kismayo. But even its own analysts acknowledge that this is mostly wishful thinking. “Civilians continue to be severely affected by the conflict, with reports of civilians being killed and injured in conflict-related violence, widespread sexual and gender-based violence against women and children, forced recruitment of children, and large-scale displacement,” UNHCR noted in a May security assessment for southern and central Somalia.

A Somali soldier surveys the wreckage from a March 2014 car bombing in front of the Makka Al Mukarrama Hotel in Mogadishu. (MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB | AFP)

Without adequate job prospects or social services, Somali officials say male returnees are at risk for recruitment by al-Shabab. “I wouldn’t rule out that some would join the extremists,” said Ahmed Nur, the head of Somalia’s national commission for refugees and internally displaced people, who estimates that around 10 percent of returnees to the Mogadishu area are already living in displacement camps.

In Kismayo, U.N. and other aid workers estimate that the figure for people who end up homeless is closer to 15 percent. Hundreds of returnees from Dadaab have streamed into displacement camps, 86 of which are scattered around the city, according to the regional government. At one called Tawfiq, or “Unity,” dozens of makeshift dwellings, rigged up with empty grain sacks and whatever else residents could get their hands on, are arrayed across yellow sand dunes that descend into the ocean. Of the 200 families who eke out a living here, 60 are returnees from Dadaab.

“It is worse than Dadaab. There is no water, no sanitation,” said Ahmed Mohamed Abubakar, who fled fighting in Kismayo with his family in 2009 but returned this year with the assistance of UNHCR. “This is my country, but there is nothing for me here. I am homeless, wandering.”

A woman and child walk along the margins of Tawfiq displacement camp in Kismayo. (TY MCCORMICK | FOREIGN POLICY)

Returnees described multiple pressures that forced them to leave Dadaab. Intimidation by Kenyan security forces, whom returnees blame for whipping up rumors of forced evictions, left many convinced they could face physical violence if they remained. Many said their community leaders in the camp had told them unambiguously that Kenyan authorities were saying it was time to leave. The appointment of army generals to the government committee tasked with closing Dadaab registered as a clear warning: Stay after Nov. 30, the government’s deadline for closure, and risk being caught up in a military operation to clear the camp.

“We were afraid they would come with trucks, with soldiers,” said Abii, who spoke quickly and animatedly, orange nail polish glinting in the sun.

Unable to answer the question of what would happen after the government’s deadline, aid agencies did little to assuage people’s fears. Meanwhile, the World Food Programme’s 2015 decision to cut food rations by 30 percent began to look in retrospect to some residents like a covert plan to starve them out.

“The only option was to take the little money UNHCR was giving if you left,” Abubakar said. “People were going hungry in Dadaab.”

Mark Yarnell, whose work at the advocacy group Refugees International focuses on Somalia, said the repatriation process amounted to a clear violation of international humanitarian law. “It’s a sham to call it voluntary return when you have the Kenyans waging an effective information campaign to instill fear, and then you have UNHCR providing inducements for people to return to a place that’s unstable and unsafe,” he said.

The Kenyan Interior Ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but in the past it has denied that the repatriations are anything but voluntary and humane. However, officials have repeatedly skirted the issue of what will happen to those refugees who wish to remain. In July, Haro Kamau, the deputy commissioner of Garissa County who oversees Dadaab, told FP that it “would be very unkind for any refugee to refuse to go home.”

The U.S. government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to support refugees in Dadaab over the years. It has also called on the Kenyan government to back off its plan to close the camp by Nov. 30. At the same time, however, it supports UNHCR’s repatriation efforts. On a visit to Nairobi last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pledged an additional $29 million specifically to help facilitate the return of refugees to Somalia.

“We are very concerned by reports that refugee returns from the Dadaab camps in Kenya to Somalia are not truly voluntary,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told FP in a written statement. “In consultations with both UNHCR and the Government of Kenya, we have stressed the imperative that those individuals enlisting in the voluntary return program are doing so with full knowledge of what they can likely expect in Somalia.”

Muhubo Abdulahi was among the first refugees to settle in Dadaab in 1991. She was repatriated by UNHCR in March of this year and now lives in this small hut in Tawfiq displacement camp in Kismayo. (TY MCCORMICK | FOREIGN POLICY)

Women carry firewood on their backs outside Tawfiq displacement camp in Kismayo. (TY MCCORMICK | FOREIGN POLICY)

Children play outside their hut in Tawfiq displacement camp in Kismayo. (TY MCCORMICK | FOREIGN POLICY)

Children walk through Tawfiq displacement camp in Kismayo. (TY MCCORMICK | FOREIGN POLICY)

UNHCR continues to defend the repatriation process as consistent with its mandate to ensure that all returns are voluntary, safe, and dignified. It has acknowledged unspecified “concerns” raised by human rights advocates but says it is working closely with the Kenyan government to guarantee that refugees’ rights are respected.

“UNHCR is not promoting returns to Somalia but facilitating the movements of those who make an informed and therefore voluntary decision to return, by providing travel assistance, cash grants and an in-kind assistance package,” Catherine Hamon Sharpe, UNHCR’s assistant representative in Kenya, said in a written statement to FP. “The fact that the Government of Kenya has set 30 November as a deadline for the closure of the camp and that no alternative has been provided, obviously creates anxiety among refugees, as a voluntary process cannot be time-bound. It is noted however, that the Government has repeatedly stated that there will be no forced returns.”

UNHCR’s insistence that a voluntary process cannot be time-bound but that this particular time-bound process is entirely voluntary succinctly demonstrates the corner the agency has backed itself into. In private, current and former UNHCR officials say they were faced with an impossible choice when the Kenyan government made clear that it was serious about closing the camp: If they recused themselves from the process, the Kenyan government might have started its own mass deportations that could have precipitated a humanitarian disaster. But a “humanitarian disaster” is precisely what the regional government in Kismayo — the Jubaland administration — has called the U.N.’s existing repatriation program.

“There was this sense that we were preventing the worst-case scenario, which maybe we are,” said a UNHCR official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But you could also argue that we are approaching a worst-case scenario anyway.”

Whether or not it’s making the best of a bad situation, UNHCR’s actions provide political cover to a Kenyan government that has long viewed this refugee population as a nuisance. And as the campaign of intimidation has intensified, the agency has found itself on the wrong side of international agreements and norms that it’s duty-bound to uphold.

“The approach that’s been taken up until now has been characterized by a lack of honesty,” said Jeff Crisp, a former head of policy development and evaluation at UNHCR who is now affiliated with the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University. “If UNHCR feels obliged, for one reason or another, good or bad, to get involved in an operation that doesn’t meet its own standards, which it’s put up in public, then it’s got to explain what it’s doing and why it’s doing it. But my sense over the last few weeks is that they’re trying to fudge this.”

African Union and Somali troops walk past a mosque in Kismayo shortly after capturing the city from al-Shabab in 2012. (STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images)

But it’s not just that UNHCR has obscured the apparently involuntary nature of the repatriations; it has downplayed the abysmal and often unsafe conditions that await returnees, as well as its extremely limited ability to support them. Abubakar and other former residents of Dadaab complained bitterly that they had been abandoned by the aid agencies, which they believed would do much more to ease the transition to their shattered home country.

“UNHCR promised they would give us shelter and schools for our children,” said Abubakar, who once manned a small shop in town but is now unable to find work. “But we came here and got nothing. The promises, they were false.”

Some returnees said they had been given false information about the safety of their home regions, arriving in Kismayo only to discover that their ancestral villages were still controlled by al-Shabab. Virtually everyone said they were going hungry and that the financial support they received from international organizations — an initial lump sum from UNHCR of a few hundred dollars per household, plus a $200 monthly lifeline for the first six months, redeemable with a World Food Programme (WFP) ration card — wasn’t nearly enough. Local vendors are said to regularly hike prices for anyone who tries to pay using the ration cards.

Challiss McDonough, a spokeswoman for WFP, said the organization is currently investigating reports of price fixing in Kismayo and that retailers have been warned against this behavior. “Anywhere we do cash-based transfers, we have robust monitoring of the retailers to avoid price gouging, for example including spot checks,” she said in a statement to FP.

Yet returnees say they continue to go hungry as unscrupulous vendors cash in on the aid that was supposed to sustain them. “They know we are vulnerable,” Abii said. “They see the WFP card, and the price is suddenly double.”

School girls walk past the ruins of the old colonial post office in Kismayo. The only schools in this city are private, and therefore prohibitively expensive for most impoverished returnees. (TY MCCORMICK | FOREIGN POLICY)

Jubaland security forces stand in front of a destroyed monument to national unity built by former dictator Siad Barre. It was destroyed by al-Shabab, which controlled Kismayo until 2012. (TY MCCORMICK | FOREIGN POLICY)

The ruins of a Roman Catholic church built by the Italians in the 1930s. It was destroyed by al-Shabab in 2008. (TY MCCORMICK | FOREIGN POLICY)

Conditions have gotten so bad for returnees that the Jubaland administration suspended all return convoys from Dadaab last month. It says it won’t accept any more until UNHCR and other aid agencies can ensure a minimum level of support.

“Jubaland has requested a halt of returns until we get solutions. Before they start again, we need basic services in place: water, sanitation, housing,” said Yusuf, the mayor of Kismayo, who joked that he didn’t want the U.S. taxpayers funding the UNHCR-led repatriation process to “feel let down.”

Yusuf says his administration has set aside land for the returnees but that aid agencies have not made good on their promises to build housing and sanitation. Negotiations are ongoing among the Jubaland administration, the Kenyan government, and UNHCR to resume repatriations to Kismayo.

In the meantime, flights from Dadaab to Mogadishu continue to land several times per week. Passengers leave behind a hard life in the camp, but one with a semblance of a safety net provided by aid agencies. They begin a new one with fewer lifelines, in a place that is less forgiving. Often, it appears, they do so against their will and in violation of international humanitarian law.

Top Image: TOBIN JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Ty McCormick