The UN humanitarian agency said the planned spontaneous returns of Somali refugees mainly from Kenya is likely to be affected by the insecurity in central and southern parts of the Horn of Africa nation.
The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in its latest report for Somalia that the returns will decline due to the ongoing military offensive on the militant- controlled areas in southern and central regions.
“Following the mid-March launch of a military offensive by the Somali National Armed Forces and the African Union Mission in Somalia to recover Al-Shabaab-controlled areas in southern and central Somalia, humanitarian agencies remain concerned about possible consequences,” OCHA said in a report on Saturday.
The report comes after Kenya ordered all refugees living in urban areas to return to their camps in a bid to end attacks by armed groups carried out in retaliation for Kenya’s intervention in neighboring Somalia.
Kenyans were also asked to report any refugees or illegal immigrants outside the overcrowded camps – Dadaab in the east and Kakuma in the northwest – to the police.
Kenyan security officials believe armed groups have used the refugee camps as bases to prepare attacks and then mingled with residents in urban areas to carry them out.
However, the UN refugee agency has called on the government to reconsider its directive to move about 50,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers from urban areas to overcrowded and underserviced refugee camps.
According to UNHCR, all communities are affected by insecurity, and scapegoating refugees is not an answer, adding that blanket implementation of encampment measures is arbitrary and unreasonable, and carries a threat to human dignity.
The UN refugee agency said the refugees are as much at risk from insecurity as the wider population and called for a solution that is sensitive to protection needs.
Aid agencies say widespread poverty, unemployment, lack of food and water, and inadequate access to medical and legal aid as the harsh realities of lives for tens of thousands of East African refugees living in urban and peri-urban areas of Nairobi.
According to OCHA, among the 25 districts targeted for the military operation is Baidoa (Bay Region), one of the pilot areas for the spontaneous voluntary return under the 2013 Tripartite Agreement among Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR.
“Other pilot areas for return include the port city of Kismayo (Lower Juba Region) and Luuq (Gedo Region).
Kenya is host to an estimated 430,000 Somali refugees, the majority of whom are hosted in Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya.
According to UNHCR, basic infrastructure, including the setting up of way stations in Dobley, Baidoa and Luuq, had been completed in readiness for the spontaneous returns.
“As of March 25, some 2,663 individuals had approached the UNHCR Return Help Desk in Dadaab refugee camp, north-eastern Kenya, and were counseled on the repatriation process,” OCHA said.
Of these, OCHA said 89.6 per cent (2,391 people) expressed their willingness to return to Somalia within the next three months.
The preferred areas of return for the registered refugees, which are also the areas of origin for 75 percent of the refugees, are Kismayo (792 people), Baidoa (401 people) and Luuq (128 people) , it said.
“Refugees who do not originate from the three designated areas (1,307 people) or whose area of origin remains unknown (35 people) would not be included in the pilot phase of the spontaneous voluntary return,” OCHA said.
OCHA reported that about 12,000 people have been temporarily displaced between March 17 and 22, with direct impacts in Bakool, Gedo, Hiraan, Lower and Middle Shabelle regions. Thousands of displaced people have moved to Baidoa for assistance and safety.
Baidoa is however facing a state of political instability, resulting from disagreement over the establishment of a regional state, added OCHA.
“Although UNHCR stands ready to support refugees in the spontaneous return process, OCHA observes that the current security situation and displacements risk a declining interest by registered refugees to undertake return movements,” it said.
Kenya has for many years generously hosted tens of thousands of Somalis refugees, fleeing fighting from central and southern Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo whose lives were at substantial risk that requires international protection.
Kenya, which hosted protracted negotiations that culminated in the formation of the governments in South Sudan and Somalia, said the refugee situation continues to pose security threats to Nairobi and the region apart from the humanitarian crisis.