Nairobi — The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has identified three priority areas to which it will help Somali refugees return home from Kenya, a senior official said on Tuesday.
The UNHCR signed an agreement with the governments of both countries on Nov. 10, and half a million Somali refugees living in Kenya are expected to return home voluntarily over the next three years. The number of refugees from Somalia - 1.1 million - is the third highest in the world after Afghanistan and Syria.
"We are trying to work with UNHCR Somalia to identify, together with the federal government of the republic of Somalia, the areas which I can call relatively safe for return," Abel Mbilinyi, UNHCR deputy representative for Kenya, told a news conference.
"Currently we are looking at three areas, which are Luuq, Baidoa and a part of Kismayo where we want to start for people who want to go there."
The three areas were formerly controlled by the Islamic militant group al Shabaab but are now are under the control of the Somali National Army and African Union troops, known as Amisom.
Amisom troops moved into Baidoa, the third largest city in south-central Somalia, 250 km (155 miles) south of the capital Mogadishu, in May. Ethiopian troops ousted al Shabaab from the city in 2012. Luuq, in southwestern Gedo region, and the eastern port city of Kismayo, Somalia's second biggest city, are both part of the semi-autonomous Jubaland administration.
Mbilinyi said the UNHCR can monitor the safety of returnees in these areas through partner non-governmental organisations working on the ground.
Reception centres will be set up in the three cities, where returnees will receive food, household basics and other materials to help them rebuild their lives.
"Stability is coming back to Somalia. Most of the country is safe even though of course Shabaab are controlling some cities throughout Somalia," Somalia's ambassador to Kenya, Mohammed Ali Nur, told a news conference. "We believe that soon we will liberate the whole country."
Dadaab, near the Somali border, is the world's largest refugee camp and home to 388,000 Somali refugees, the UNHCR says. Kakuma camp holds 54,000 Somali refugees and 32,500 live in the capital, Nairobi.
A help desk has been set up in Dadaab, and others are planned for Nairobi and Kakuma. The UNHCR plans to ask all Somali refugees whether they wish to return to Somalia, and if so, where.
Tens of thousands of Somalis have spontaneously returned home as stability has improved.
"This year alone our office in Somalia has met close to 35,000 people who returned from Dadaab," said Mbilinyi, adding that Somali refugees from Kenya are also moving to Uganda, Mozambique, Malawi and South Africa.
Push factors are undoubtedly also at play.
Food rations have been cut in Dadaab, an inhospitable, overcrowded camp set in remote, arid northeast Kenya.
Kenyan politicians have called for Somali refugees to be repatriated following September's attack on the Westgate shopping mall by al Shabaab. One parliamentarian is reported to have called Dadaab a "nursery for terrorists" and demanded its closure, although no refugees have been linked to any of the attacks on Kenya.
Rights groups say refugees living in Nairobi have been tortured and raped by the police.
On the other hand, several refugees have said they do not wish to return to Somalia because of the lack of schools and health facilities.
"There is war, there is no medicine," said Sofia Muhamud, 39, who has diabetes and lives in Nairobi with her two teenage children.
Others are traumatised by their memories.
Ruun Mohamed, 29, lost her father and four brothers in a bomb blast in Mogadishu in 1993. Her mother was shot dead in Mogadishu's Bakara market in 2000.
"I don't want to go back to Mogadishu," she said.
A commission of representatives from the two governments plus the UNHCR will meet in Mogadishu in the next few weeks and set up technical working groups to plan the logistics of the repatriation exercise, Mbilinyi said.
"I ask refugees not to fear," said Badu Katelo, Kenya's commissioner for refugee affairs. "The parties [to the tripartite agreement] will ensure that security is enhanced in areas of return, that schools will be built, that hospitals will be built."