A Full Circle: Refugee returns between Kenya and Somalia

Kenya and Somalia present an interesting and often delicate case study of circular refugee movements. Spurred by limited data and analysis, circular refugee returns between the neighbouring countries became the focus of our rapid review. We sought to examine the circumstances in which Somali refugees return to Somalia, how and why they decide to move back to Kenya, and their experiences upon return. Despite challenges brought about by the spread of COVID-19, interviews were conducted with key stakeholders including Somali returnees to Kenya.

Kenya hosts the largest number of registered Somali refugees, providing refuge to 264,544 persons—the majority of whom live in the Dadaab refugee complex. However, there has been a tightening of the asylum space, with registration and asylum processes in Dadaab having been suspended, and repatriation gaining official prominence. Since 2014, 85,067 Somalis have been assisted to return to Somalia from Kenya through a Voluntary Repatriation Programme (VRP). However, research by the REF in 2018 revealed that some refugees returned under duress, and many were disappointed by the conditions in Somalia.

A strategy deployed across communities

We found that circular returns are a relatively common strategy adopted by Somali refugees. This strategy has also been observed among South Sudanese refugees in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. Our review confirms that a significant number of Somali refugees who repatriate to Somalia, both unassisted or through the VRP, subsequently return (sometimes multiple times) to Kenya. Thus, assisted voluntary return does not always mean an end to displacement, even when accompanied by reintegration assistance.

How significant are the numbers?

In the absence of registration in Dadaab, asylum seekers go through a profiling process. Though this doesn’t provide them with crucial documentation, it facilitates their access to food assistance. Official figures show there are 15,969 undocumented individuals in Dadaab, almost a quarter of which were Somali circular returnees who had been repatriated through the VRP. Though this represents about 4% of returnees repatriated through the VRP, it doesn’t include those who may have not come forward for profiling. Further, there are no data on the number of returnees who had moved to Somalia using their own means, intending for that to be a permanent move, but who were back again in Kenya.

Pull and push factors at play

This review finds that major reasons for circular returns to Kenya include the challenging security and economic conditions in Somalia, temporary visits to families across the border, and access to services such as education (which are seen as being of better quality in Kenya). For refugees with greater economic means, circularity is a key livelihood strategy allowing them to test opportunities on the other side of the border while 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.

From refugee to undocumented migrant

When Somali returnees come back to Kenya, the conditions awaiting them depend largely on their socioeconomic status (and the support they can draw upon), and on whether or not they still have refugee status in Kenya. With many having given up their initial refugee status, they lack legal status and face challenges in accessing protection and assistance. Even if some returnees are able to mitigate these conditions through alternative income sources, without a refugee ID card, they face challenges in obtaining movement passes, qualifying for incentive work, and accessing SIM cards, banking services, and government services.

Our research also uncovered cases of children returning to Kenya without their families, and this exposes them to particular vulnerabilities, which are exacerbated by their inability to access basic services without valid refugee registration status.

Returnees to the urban areas

Among returnees to Kenya’s urban areas, there appears to be a fear of coming forward to the authorities. More research is required to understand the challenges and opportunities that return presents to them, and whether these differ from those of camp-based returnees. Research into onward movements of circular returnees from Kenya to other African countries and to Europe would also help fill a gap in the current knowledge.

In addition to further avenues of research, this review calls for the following interventions:

  1. Strengthening advocacy with government to register undocumented returnees and other asylum seekers in Dadaab;
  2. Recognising the heterogeneity of returnees, and tailoring interventions accordingly;
  3. Expanding food assistance to all unregistered asylum seekers profiled, clarifying who is eligible, and raising awareness of what the profiling process entails;
  4. Targeting vulnerable unaccompanied children and adolescent returnees with protection-related support and ensure they have access to education;
  5. Strengthening the socioeconomic situation of Somali refugees in Kenya as this has been shown to improve outcomes upon return.

These are crucial, since circular movements, split families, and staged returns will likely remain an important strategy for many who find themselves coming back full circle.

Image: USAID/Amunga Eshuchi on FlickrCC-BY-NA 2.0

Circular refugee returns between Kenya and Somalia

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Author: Farah Manji

Independent researcher and writer, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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