Mogadishu — As plans to facilitate the return of hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees from neighbouring Kenya gather steam, serious doubts persist about whether conditions in Somalia are conducive to such a large-scale repatriation operation.
There are some 600,000 Somali refugees in Kenya, according to government figures, more than two thirds of whom live in the sprawling, 20-year-old Dadaab complex in the east of the country.
In recent years Kenya has repeatedly expressed a desire to ease its "refugee burden" and on 5 June President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Somali counterpart Hassan Sheikh Mohammed met in Nairobi to move the process forward. They agreed that a conference would be held in August to work out the modalities of repatriation and also to set up a tripartite committee with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
"This is part of Somali government policies... Somalia is now on the path to economic recovery as well as security improvement," said Abdirahman Omar Osman, an adviser to the Somali president, told IRIN.
Mohamed Omar Dalha, the deputy chairman of Somalia's Parliamentary Commission for Foreign Affairs, was more cautious. "It does not matter if they [the refugees] are sent to relatively peaceful areas like Mogadishu and Baidoa... [But] large swathes of the country are still controlled by militants. We have to be careful about the security of these people," he said.
Abdullahi Mohamed Shirwa, the chairman of a network of civil society organizations in central and southern Somalia, said of the planned relocations: "There are blasts - suicide attacks - and people are fleeing in the southern town of Kismayo as conflicts [are] renewed. The very reasons that forced these people to flee still exist, so there is no point why they should be returned. They will not have access to health [or] education services in these areas."
Mark Yarnell, Africa refugee advocate at Refugees International, told IRIN that while the international community should support those refugees who do want to repatriate voluntarily, "the narrative that Somalia is safe and ready for large-scale returns - when the federal government only controls a fraction of the country - is dangerous...
"The current situation on the ground in Somalia definitely does not allow for a mass repatriation of refugees. Certainly, there are areas in Somalia that are becoming safer and secure, but the stability is fragile. In areas controlled by the Somali Federal Government, Al-Shabab maintains the capacity to carry out major attacks (such as the tragic attack last week on the UN compound in Mogadishu); and in "liberated" cities like the port city of Kismayo, rival warlords are fighting for control, forcing civilians to flee," Yarnell said.
This view was echoed by UNHCR Somalia spokesman Andy Needham: "There have been some encouraging developments in Somalia lately but these improvements do not mean that large numbers of Somali refugees can all go home yet. It will take time before conditions in general, for example security as well as law and order, are restored throughout Somalia and local administrations are rebuilt.
"UNHCR's position - as elsewhere around the world - is that refugees should make informed decisions about whether to return home and should return home voluntarily in safety and dignity. UNHCR therefore hopes that countries of asylum will continue to afford Somali refugees protection until they can go home," he told IRIN in an email.
"I can assure you that we will do it [repatriation] in an orderly and most humane manner which upholds the dignity to our visitors," Kenya's cabinet secretary for foreign affairs, Amina Mohammed, was quoted as saying in local press reports this week.
So far this year, 17,000 Somali refugees living in Kenya returned to Somalia, according to UNHCR, which pointed out that some of them may have done so only temporarily, for example to plant crops.
Hubio Abdi Kilass, a mother of three, has lived in Dadaab for the past 20 years. She told IRIN that despite the difficulty of life in Dadaab, Somalia is not yet peaceful enough to warrant her return.
"You can see how we are struggling to collect food rations in this scorching sun, but I cannot trust to go back to Somalia so early, because I am sure I will be forced to run away again due to the ongoing conflict between the various factions fighting for power. I don't want to be a refugee two times. I would rather stay longer than risk my life," she said.
Aid officials told IRIN there is apprehension among refugees about possible repatriation, in part because they are not sure about the nature of the process but also because of the unpredictable security situation in Somalia.
"Refugees do not know about the conditions they might be going back to. Those with property are afraid of losing what they have acquired over time," said Rufus Karanja, spokesperson at Refugee Consortium of Kenya.
"We don't know about the details of the agreement but we believe it will follow best practices where those willing to go back are also facilitated to have 'a visit to see' opportunity," Karanja added.
Camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) inside Somalia lack basic amenities and are overcrowded.
"I came back to [my] homeland because I thought life [had] improved, but [what] I encountered and what I had expected are quite different. We do not have enough health services nor do we have enough food, so what sort of repatriation are they talking about?" Zahra, a mother of six who recently returned from the Kenyan refugee camp of Hagadera in Dadaab, told IRIN from one such camp in Mogadishu.
There are an estimated one million IDPs in Somalia.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]