Mogadishu — Hundreds of Somalis repatriated from Kenya over the past two months, some of whom had lived there for decades, are finding it difficult to return to a place they no longer consider home and to rely on relatives who are also struggling to get by.
Kenyan authorities have deported 359 Somalis, including at least three registered refugees, since the start of their security crackdown in early April, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said last Friday (May 23rd).
Amina Hassan, a 25-year-old mother of four, was one of 84 people put on a flight to Mogadishu April 9th.
Hassan said she has lived most of her life in Kenya; her mother fled with her from Somalia when she was only 5 years old after her father was killed in Mogadishu by unknown bandits.
Together they lived in Dadaab Refugee Complex until 2006 when she moved to Nairobi to stay with family friends after her mother died, she said. She eventually settled in Nairobi and married there in 2009.
"My husband, my children and I were forcefully brought back to the city of Mogadishu," she told Sabahi, describing what happened when Kenyan security forces came to their apartment building on Jam Street in Eastleigh. "It was late at night when the security forces apprehended us. Police officers banged on our doors yelling for al-Shabaab to come out."
"We were all terrified," Hassan said. "When they asked us for our refugee identification cards, we told them that we had lost them, but they would not accept that [answer]. We [eventually] joined hundreds of Somali people who were taken to Pangani Police Station in Nairobi."
The family was held in Pangani for three days and then transferred to Kasarani Stadium, where they were held for over two weeks, she said.
Hassan said they had attempted to bribe the arresting officers to let them go, but they refused to take the money. Instead she used that money, 5,000 shillings ($57), to bribe the soldiers in Kasarani Stadium to buy medicine and essential supplies for her children.
For his part, Somali lawmaker Mohamed Omar Dalha has been outspoken against Kenya's repatriation process, calling into question its legality.
Dalha said it was undeniably clear that Kenya acted forcefully. "Kenya even imprisoned the Somali consul in Kenya and put the women and children who were residing in Kenya as refugees in jails in broad daylight without consulting the international refugee agency or the Somali government," he told Sabahi.
"The people Kenya repatriated are Somali citizens who are [welcomed] and needed in their own country, but Kenyan security forces did not treat them well [in this process] and we continue to condemn that," he said.
Starting life anew
Dahir Abdi, 36, who was also deported to Mogadishu on April 9th, said he was captured by security forces as he was headed to a store he operated in Eastleigh.
"I have lived in Kenya for seven years and I had the refugee ID, but unfortunately I did not have it with me the morning I was arrested," he told Sabahi. "The security officers refused my request when I asked them to go with me to my house [to show them the ID] and they ordered me to get into a vehicle they were using to take people [to the police station]."
"At the time I had no idea how my wife and my six children were," Abdi said, adding that he later found out they were all arrested the same day and they reunited at Kasarani Stadium.
It was only when he arrived in Mogadishu that Abdi was able to call his relatives in Nairobi and ask them to protect and manage his shop. "I ordered them to sell all the goods," he said. "Now I want to work in my country once my shop is sold."
Despite feeling optimistic about being able to once again support his family on his own soon, Abdi said it was difficult for returning refugees like himself to become a burden on their relatives in Somalia, most of whom are poor people with nothing extra to share.
"When [my family] could not find a place to live, we were forced to become an extra burden on my brother's family," he said, adding his brother was already struggling to meet his own family's daily needs.
Abdi said the deported Somalis received a warm welcome from the Somali government upon their arrival at the airport, but no other resettlement assistance.
"I am asking the Somali government to help us with resettling, and to even find us an empty plot of land to build what we can afford until our situation changes," he said.
Somali government unprepared for returnees
Ahmed Abdikarim Nur, chairman of the Mogadishu-based National Commission for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, said the Somali government cannot afford to resettle the returnees at this time.
For now, he said, his organisation, with support from the International Organisation for Migration, is helping the returnees by providing plane tickets to those who want to continue on to other regions of Somalia.
"Somalis come from various areas in the country's provinces but people are repatriated only to Mogadishu," he told Sabahi. "Therefore, for the people who want to go on to the regions of the country, we make an effort to find them hotels for the first three days and the expenses to live on, and within three days we provide them with air tickets so everyone reaches the region he or she wants."
But that assistance has not been much help for people like 21-year-old Zahra Roble who, with her husband and their two children, was among 95 people deported from Kenya on April 20th.
Upon their arrival in Mogadishu, the family settled in at the Tarabunka camp for internally displaced persons with Roble's mother who has been living there for several years. "Eventually, the people who live in the camp helped us build [our own] makeshift tent from plastic bags and clothing," she said.
Roble told Sabahi that she and her husband had been living in Kenya illegally for five years and worked in a restaurant in Eastleigh. "When we were in Nairobi, my husband had a job that was sufficient for our lives, but he has no work now and we depend on my mother who has a small [vegetable] kiosk," she said.
"I did not want to come back to Somalia and whenever I heard there had been an explosion I would get even more scared to return," she said. "However, when I saw how Kenya treated us, I realised that there is no better place than your country."
Nonetheless, Roble criticised the Somali government for not helping them when they arrived in Mogadishu.
"I did not see the government helping us or asking what became of the people who were deported from Kenya," she said. "I do not think Somalia has a government whose leaders understand how to help their people. Each person fills his pockets with the little amount he gets in the name of the government. The public is starved of the country's resources and it is God that we are depending on."
Disaffected youth may turn to al-Shabaab
There is also some concern that the returning refugees, finding little support back in Somalia, may be swayed by al-Shabaab.
According to al-Shabaab radio in Barawe, the terrorist group opened a military training camp in Bay region for 20 Somali youth recently deported from Kenya.
"It is not good [news] to hear that a young person who was deported from Kenya has joined al-Shabaab," said Ali Mohamud, a 32-year-old resident of Mogadishu's Hamar Jajab district.
"Given how the Kenyan government treated the people [it deported], most of whom are youth, it is conceivable that anger will push [some of] them to join al-Shabaab," he said, adding that the current situation could lead to angry deportees sneaking back into Kenya on al-Shabaab missions.
"Kenya should use a better-suited strategy than the forced repatriation they are conducting now," he said.