The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) on Saturday denied allegations by the US-based Human Rights Watch that the agency and the Kenyan government were harassing and intimidating Somali refugees in Kenya to let them return home.
UNHCR's Representative in Kenya, Raouf Mazou, said in a statement that the agency was working closely with Kenya to ensure that Somali refugees' rights were upheld and that solutions were found to enable them to live in peace and security, including voluntary repatriation in conditions of safety and dignity.
The UNHCR and Kenya are repatriating Somali refugees living in northern Kenya's Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp currently harboring more than 300,000 Somalis, as Kenya said it would close the camp in November, citing mainly security concerns.
Dadaab was set up over 20 years ago to house Somalis fleeing civil conflict.
The Human Rights Watch said on Thursday that Kenya was not giving the Somalis a real choice between being repatriated or staying, and that Kenya's repatriation program does not meet international standards for voluntary return of refugees.
The rights group said refugees described intimidation by the Kenyan government, silence over alternative options that would allow them to remain in Kenya, and inadequate information on conditions in Somalia.
It said that many refugees living in Kenya's Dadaab camp say they have agreed to return home because they feared Kenya will force them out if they stay. It also accused the UNHCR of not giving the refugees accurate information about security conditions in Somalia.
In response, the UNHCR said in its statement: "Central to any refugee return process is the principle of voluntariness. In all of our engagements with government officials, refugees and other stakeholders, we have consistently stressed that repatriation must be voluntary and cannot, therefore, be time-bound."
The statement says the UNHCR is committed to ensuring that all Somalia refugees receive adequate information about conditions in their country of origin and are able to make an informed decision regarding return.
"We regularly meet with refugees, and broadcast radio messages in English and Somali, emphasizing that returns must be voluntary and based on an informed decision," the statement said.
"We are also strengthening our Return Help Desks in Dadaab and Kakuma (another refugee camp in Kenya), working closely with colleagues and partners in Somalia to provide the most up-to-date information," it added.
The statement also said the Somalis returning home were receiving the necessary support, including financial assistance and basic relief items to facilitate.
The UNHCR says that prior to Kenya's decision to close the Dadaab camp, several thousand refugees had registered their intention to return, many of whom have since voluntarily gone back to Somalia.
"Over the past five years, the Somali refugee population in Dadaab has reduced by some 160,000 individuals," the statement said.
It also said the UNHCR recognizes the challenges that Kenya has expressed with regard to the Somali refugee situation in the country -- "one of the most protracted in the world".
Kenya, UNHCR and Somalia have laid down plans to repatriate about 150,000 Somali refugees in Dadaab by the end of 2016.