Somalian Refugees in Ethiopia

Circular refugee returns between Kenya and Somalia: a rapid review

Farah Manji

Many Somali refugees fled to Kenya following their country’s civil war in the 1990s and during the famine of 2011. At the time of writing, the number of registered Somali refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya stood at over 265,000, the vast majority of whom reside in Dadaab (UNHCR, 2020a). In December 2014, a voluntary repatriation programme (VRP) for Somalis in Kenya was established under a tripartite agreement signed by UNHCR and the governments of Kenya and Somalia. Since then, UNHCR has assisted over 85,000 Somalis to return to Somalia from Kenya. In parallel to the assisted VRP, other refugees have been returning to Somalia in a ‘spontaneous’ or unassisted way. The reasons for spontaneous returns include the intention to return temporarily, the desire to maintain refugee status (which returnees must give up when they return with the VRP), hopes of resettlement, and delays associated with the VRP.

This review confirms that a significant number of Somali refugees who repatriate to Somalia through the VRP, or who make unassisted returns, subsequently return (sometimes multiple times) to Kenya. This reinforces the idea that assisted voluntary return does not bring an end to displacement, even when accompanied by reintegration assistance. In order to better understand the dynamics of circular returns, the review focuses on three key elements: 1) the circumstances in which Somali refugees decide to return to Somalia; 2) how and why they subsequently decide to move back to Kenya; and 3) their experiences upon returning to Kenya. Using qualitative methods, 18 key informant interviews were conducted with stakeholders in Nairobi, Dadaab, and Garissa. The informants included county government officials, staff at the Refugee Affairs Secretariat (RAS), Somali returnees to Kenya, Somali refugee community leaders, and NGO and UNHCR personnel. The qualitative data collection was supplemented with a review of the existing literature on circular return dynamics. The review demonstrates that, while there is a relatively large body of existing research on returns to Somalia, specific data and analysis on subsequent circular returns remain scarce.

Drivers of these circular movements

This review finds that the major reasons for circular returns to Kenya include challenging security and economic considerations in Somalia, temporary visits to family, and access to services such as education (which are seen as being of better quality in Kenya). Refugees with greater economic means can afford to make more frequent and informal cross-border movements, particularly for economic reasons. For this group, circularity is a key livelihood strategy allowing refugees to test opportunities and life on the other side of the border, while also having the flexibility to return to Kenya as a registered refugee. Circular returns are also associated with the geographic dispersal of family members to maximise access to livelihoods and services in order to ensure family wellbeing in the medium term, and to undertake a more permanent return if and when they deem conditions in the country of origin conducive.

The journey across the Somalia–Kenya border can often be risky but it is not necessarily difficult to arrange, given factors such as the availability of transportation and the relative proximity of Dadaab to the border. Interviewees frequently referred to the porous nature of the Kenya–Somalia border, and the existence of informal border crossing routes is openly discussed by refugees, government officials and those working in the humanitarian sector. Social networks based on kinship and other ties also facilitate refugees’ travel between Kenya and Somalia. Family linkages and other community networks have emerged as important factors in sharing information about the conditions across

borders, as well as serving as sources of support upon arrival in Somalia and return to Kenya. This is particularly the case for those who subsequently find themselves as unregistered asylum seekers upon return to Kenya. Local information, as opposed to information relayed by ‘official’ channels, tends to be seen as more reliable when making decisions to return, especially given the challenges and disappointments voiced about the official return process by returnees.

From refugee to undocumented migrant

When Somali returnees come back to Kenya, the conditions awaiting them there depend largely on their socioeconomic status (and the resources and support they can subsequently draw upon), and on whether or not they still have refugee status in Kenya. Returnees who make the journey informally, outside of the VRP, are often able to retain their refugee status in Kenya. For example, split returns – where some family members remain in the camps – enable other members of the household to travel to Somalia spontaneously (i.e. unofficially) and retain access to their family ration support and other assistance. On the other hand, Somali refugees assisted to return through the VRP are required to give up their refugee status in Kenya. This means that, if they return, they do so as undocumented individuals, and are no longer eligible to receive food assistance or free education. Even if some returnees are able to mitigate these conditions through alternative income sources, without a refugee ID card, they face specific challenges in obtaining movement passes, qualifying for incentive work,1 and accessing SIM cards, banking services and government services.

Thus, undocumented returnees face similar challenges to unregistered asylum seekers, and require specific attention, in terms of both immediate legal and humanitarian assistance and longer-term solutions. Of key concern is that returns are occurring in a context that is devoid of clear programming on the part of government and humanitarian or development actors. In the immediate term, many seek support such as shelter and food from relatives, clan or community members in the camps. However, in the context of funding shortfalls and reduced food rations, those who are providing support to unregistered returnees are likely themselves to be constrained as a result of already inadequate resources.

Furthermore, our research uncovered cases of children returning to Kenya without their families, and who face particular vulnerabilities. Although there are no available data regarding the number of child returnees, the large number of children who make up the undocumented caseload in Dadaab is a cause for concern; their vulnerabilities are exacerbated by their inability to access basic services without a valid refugee registration status. For example, organisations working in the field of child protection have reported that unregistered children in Dadaab are sometimes compelled to work in order to survive.

Return is a complex process and may not be not final

The review reinforces the notion that, for a number of reasons, return to Somalia is not a one- directional process. For instance, despite the challenging conditions in Kenya, many Somali refugees continue to see better opportunities for their children’s future in that country (rather than in Somalia), particularly when it comes to their education and safety. Furthermore, youth who have spent their formative years in Dadaab may have a weaker attachment to Somalia and may not necessarily feel a strong sense of belonging when they return. At the same time, returnees to Somalia are often perceived as outsiders, by both the larger society as well as by Al Shabaab, which contributes to the decision to return, including among individuals from minority groups.

Data and analysis on circular returns are lacking. However, in the uncertain context outlined above, the review suggests that circular returns are a relatively common strategy adopted by Somali refugees. For some, especially those assisted to return through the VRP, this is because returnees subsequently change their minds upon returning to Somalia, and decide to move back to Kenya. For others, circular returns represent an important livelihood strategy for testing opportunities and life on the other side of the border as part of a multi-staged return, or for maximising access to livelihoods and services elsewhere through split returns. Furthermore, a review of the literature reveals that circular returns are a common strategy adopted by refugees across different hosting countries. In Kenya, for example, they have also been observed among South Sudanese refugees in Kakuma.

Recommendations for research, policy and programmes

Based on the research findings, the review makes a number of recommendations for further research, as well as suggestions to inform policy and programming for refugees and circular returnees in Kenya, as outlined below.

Further avenues of research

Data and analysis on circular returns is lacking and, building upon this rapid review, further and more in-depth research is needed on the following thematic areas:

  • The dynamics of different types of cross-border movements. This could include research on: Somali returnees’ demographic and socioeconomic profiles; the duration and locations of their returns to Somalia; the drivers of circular returns to Kenya; the areas to which people return, and; who they return with. This applies to those who return to Somalia through the VRP, as well as unassisted returnees, given the limited data on this group. Ascertaining whether returnees who become IDPs are also part of any group that has since returned to Kenya for a second time would be important in order to examine the extent to which returnees who become IDPs are likely to engage in circular returns.
  • The socioeconomic outcomes for those who returned to Somalia from Kenya as part of the VRP. Understanding how current cross-border approaches and processes work, and whether they can be strengthened, would also add value. Comparative case studies on VRPs in other countries would also be useful in understanding best practices and sharing lessons learned.2
  • Circular returnees’ level of access to services in Kenya, and any specific programmes or support they may require. This could include research into the number and situation of unregistered returnees who are children, and an understanding of the particular vulnerabilities and risks they may be facing.
  • The situation of returnees who move to urban areas, such as Nairobi. More research is required to understand the particular challenges as well as opportunities that life upon return to Kenya presents to urban returnees, and whether and how these differ from the prospects and experiences of camp-based returnees. Research into onward movements of circular returnees from Kenya (in particular from urban areas) to other African countries (e.g. Uganda, South Africa and Libya) as well as to Europe would also help to fill a gap in the current knowledge.
  • The circular returns of other refugee groups such as Ethiopians and South Sudanese in Kakuma. This is relevant given the launch of the VRP with the Ethiopian government, and would provide an interesting comparison with the situation of Somali refugees.
  • Information networks among the Somali refugee community in Kenya and with cross- border communities. Research could include how these networks operate, and how they can be strengthened to share better quality information among humanitarian and development partners. A closer look at the quality and relevance of messaging and information shared through the return helpdesks would be worth pursuing. It should also be noted, that any research into information networks should be carefully conducted within agreed parameters for the protection of people on the move, rather than with a view to manage refugee flows.

Strengthening policy and programming

The findings of this review have also highlighted a range of pressing humanitarian and protection concerns affecting returnees in Kenya. The following interventions are required in the immediate, medium and long term:

  • Prioritise and strengthen advocacy efforts with RAS and other national government ministries to register undocumented returnees and other asylum seekers in Dadaab. There is also a need to support RAS in addressing the registration backlog and in expanding access to relevant documentation for refugees and asylum seekers.
  • Recognise the heterogeneity of returnees, and tailor programmatic and policy interventions accordingly. A needs assessment with a cross-section of returnees in Dadaab and the urban areas is required to better understand specific requirements for support and what this would entail.
  • Support organisations that have a strong protection-related mandate, including national NGOs providing legal aid and representation to refugees and asylum seekers. In addition, fieldwork indicates that unregistered returnees may require psychosocial support as a result of the conditions they experienced in Somalia, their journeys back and forth, or their experiences upon returning to Kenya given changes in their legal status and subsequent restrictions on their access to humanitarian services and income sources.
  • Expand food assistance to all unregistered asylum seekers who are profiled by UNHCR and RAS. Linked to this, there is also a need to clarify who is eligible for food assistance and to raise awareness of what the profiling process entails.
  • Target vulnerable unaccompanied children and adolescents returning to Kenya with protection-related support and ensure they have access to education.
  • Strengthen the socioeconomic situation of Somali refugees residing in Kenya, as this has been shown to improve outcomes upon return. This could include recognising that circular movements, split families and staged returns are an important strategy for some.

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Image source: ©European Union/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie

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