Many Somali refugees living in Kenya believe they will be forced to return home, with more than 300 out of almost half a million asking for help with repatriation, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said amid warnings of worsening hunger due to poor rains.
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 to Somalia 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. Kenya hosts more of them than any other country with the biggest group living in the world's largest refugee camp, Dadaab, a complex series of tented settlements near the arid Kenya-Somalia border.
UNHCR said 319 refugees living in Ifo 2, which is part of Dadaab, approached the agency saying they intended to return home.
"There was however a widespread misconception that refugees would be forced to return, especially after the statements by government officials," the UN said in its latest Dadaab Update newsletter. "Many refugees approached UNHCR requesting to be allowed to stay in Kenya."
WORRIED ABOUT INSECURITY
Two government delegations visited Dadaab in late November. On Nov. 22, Somali government representatives met with refugees and told them to start thinking about returning as conditions in Somalia were improving.
"The refugee leaders expressed skepticism about the situation in Somalia, saying that in principle they wanted to go home, but they still did not believe that favourable conditions for return in safety were in place," UNHCR said.
On Nov. 22, Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for the Interior Joseph Ole Lenku also visited the camp and encouraged the refugees to return to rebuild their country.
"The refugee leaders gave the same answer as the day before, saying they were hesitant about the possibility of immediate return, since they were well aware of the situation in Somalia and were worried about insecurity and lack of infrastructure such as schools and health services," UNHCR said.
The U.N. has set up return help desks to give accurate information and "counter misleading rumours circulating in the camps", the newsletter said.
Last week, Nicholas Kay, the secretary-general's special representative for Somalia, told the U.N. Security Council that UNHCR will offer assistance initially to an estimated 10,000 Somali refugees opting to repatriate during a six-month pilot phase.
Lower Juba and Gedo regions, which border Kenya, are among the priority areas identified for return.
There are 389,026 Somali refugees registered in Dadaab and neighbouring Alinjugur camps, according to UNHCR. Of these, 161,348 are from Lower Juba, on the Kenyan border; 69,566 are from Middle Juba, slightly further up the coast; 55,683 are from Banadir, the region around the capital Mogadishu; and 29,377 come from Gedo region, also bordering Kenya.
Meanwhile, aid agencies are preparing for increased hunger in Somalia due to drought, flooding and a cyclone.
"Food security is likely to deteriorate in some areas of Somalia due to recent, climactic shocks including river flooding and flash floods induced by a tropical cyclone," the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) said in late November.
Lower Juba, Middle Juba and Gedo regions are affected by drought as well as floods in areas bordering the Juba River.
The Deyr rainy season, which is supposed to last from October to December, started late and rains were low. Crops were planted late and the area planted is between 10 to 30 percent below normal in some regions, FEWSNET said.
"The significant reduction in Deyr crops could reduce national cereal supply, triggering wider food insecurity. With many households facing unexpected shocks, a scaling up of humanitarian assistance and activation of contingency planning are necessary to address likely greater needs," it said.
Most of Somalia is considered 'stressed', which is phase two out of five on the hunger scale, with phase five being 'famine'. Some 260,000 people died in the 2011 famine in south-central Somalia.