Kenya, Somalia and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are facing serious challenges in creating favourable conditions for Somali refugees in Kenya to voluntarily return home under a tripartite agreement reached in November.
Currently, there are more than 500,000 registered Somali refugees in Kenya, according to UNHCR, and many others are believed to be undocumented in Nairobi and other areas.
UNHCR has identified the Somali towns of Baidoa in Bay region, Luuq in Gedo and parts of Kismayo in Lower Jubba region as priority areas where it can assist refugees in voluntary returns.
In order to make this process possible, however, the tripartite commission must identify opportunities to ensure refugees can return safely and live in relative peace, provide adequate resources for returnees to support themselves, and help to foster political stability in areas where refugees are seeking to return.
Equally important, Kenya must work with its local governments to minimise the negative economic impacts that come with the eventual closure of refugee camps -- a reality that UNHCR said will not happen in the near future.
Legality and logistics of return
Statements by Kenyan officials urging refugee camps to be closed may create the false impression among refugees that they do not have the right to safe return as outlined in international law and the tripartite agreement.
Ensuring a fair and legal process for those who want to return voluntarily will be critical to maintaining the legitimacy and legality of the process.
On the other hand, many refugees -- some of whom have never been to Somalia -- may want to leave the refugee camps' harsh conditions but are hesitant to do so as a result of continued insecurity in Somalia.
While al-Shabaab has lost some major cities in Somalia, the group has remained an active threat against Somali refugees, as returnees have described al-Shabaab's tactics to intimidate, harass and assault those travelling on the dangerous roads between Kenya and Somalia.
Other areas where refugees are set to return are still controlled by al-Shabaab or are located along roads that continue to be the sites of al-Shabaab attacks, clan fighting and illegal checkpoints run by independent militias.
To address these problems, safe corridors should be established where local forces and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops work together to guarantee safety for returning refugees and the humanitarian organisations assisting them.
Given the severe insecurity along routes in north-eastern Kenya and Somalia, this model would be difficult to implement. But it may provide one of the only practical mechanisms to better guarantee the safe and voluntary return of Somali refugees.
Kenya and Somalia could work with UNHCR, AMISOM and Ethiopian forces to establish specific routes where security is significantly beefed up.
The United Nations Security Council's approval of 4,400 additional AMISOM troops could play a role in accomplishing this objective.
In order to sustain safe corridors in the long-term, Somalia and its international partners must help to build a cohesive and effective Somali National Army that can police roads and hold areas taken back from al-Shabaab.
If security cannot be established along these corridors and in priority areas, refugees in Kenya assuredly will continue to reject any effort to facilitate their return. For those who can manage to return safely, retaining the resources to continue their lives will be a challenging task.
Preparing 'priority areas' for returnees
Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR, in co-ordination with other international partners, will need to examine ways to equip refugees with the resources they need to make their return sustainable.
In UNHCR's priority areas, there already are many internally displaced persons and locals who have not yet received assistance due to limited resources, including access to water and health services. The slow return of refugees from Kenya could further strain the availability of these resources if proper arrangements are not met.
Supporting returning refugees with adequate resources to re-start their lives will be crucial in reducing their vulnerability. For example, recent assistance to farmers in Luuq with irrigation pumps, farming tools and seeds have helped create better harvests, improved food security and lower food prices.
Some level of capacity building has occurred inside Kenyan refugee camps. Refugees in the camps have been able to receive vocational training and support from aid agencies in trades such as electronics, mechanics, carpentry, hairdressing, soap-making, small-scale agricultural activities, among other useful skills.
However, access to these training programmes has been limited due to limited resources, and many long-time refugees have yet to acquire vocational and agricultural skills that could help them sustain a living once back home.
Unless education, training and assets for livelihood are provided for voluntary returnees, the repatriation process risks transporting populations with few means to survive. This reduces the ability of refugees to support themselves and respond resiliently to everyday challenges as well as more serious crises such as drought and famine.
Economic impact of repatriation for Kenya
If favourable conditions for voluntary return can be created, refugee camps can eventually be scaled down or closed safely and legally. But this prospect will have significant economic effects in north-eastern Kenya.
The closure of refugee camps in Kenya would significantly decrease foreign investment worth billions of Kenyan shillings, according to financial experts, as the majority of humanitarian operations are funded by international donors and aid organisations.
The impact also would be felt locally. Many host communities do a considerable amount of business with their refugee counterparts, especially where there are clan ties. Bus companies, traders, food suppliers and Kenyan locals contracted to work in the humanitarian sector in north-eastern Kenya would also face the prospect of losing their livelihood in a region that was under-developed before the construction of refugee camps in 1991.
The total economic benefit of the camps and related operations -- including local employment, business opportunities and lower food prices -- is around 1.2 billion shillings ($14 million) annually for Kenya, according to a study commissioned by the governments of Denmark, Kenya and Norway in 2010.
The study also noted that the presence of humanitarian agencies in the region helped to improve the local communities' access to water, healthcare and better transport services.
Unskilled local workers -- who make an average of 400 shillings per day ($4.70) working in Dadaab -- are able to garner higher wages compared to other parts of Kenya, where wages fall between 200-300 shillings ($2.30-$3.50) for the same kind of work, according to the report.
If aid agencies and refugees are to eventually stream out of north-eastern Kenya, it will be a critical task for the Kenyan government to replace the economic and infrastructural benefits to host communities previously brought in by their presence.
As a result, the Kenyan government will have to ensure that under the ongoing devolution process, traditionally marginalised regions such as north-eastern Kenya can co-ordinate with Nairobi to invest in building local and cross-border economies.
Improving overall security and transport infrastructure can help to increase trade, draw foreign investment and eventually provide opportunities for tourism to develop in the region.
These kinds of investments in the security and livelihood of communities long-connected across the Horn of Africa's borders begin to address some of the basic issues related to refugee flows. If implemented successfully, plans for refugees to return voluntarily from Kenya to Somalia can be carried out sustainably and with benefits for all.