Kenya: Burundian Refugees Leave Kakuma Voluntarily

Kakuma refugee camp and Kalobeyei settlement in the arid desert of north-western Kenya (file photo).

Burundian refugees who agree to return to their country from the Kakuma camp in Turkana will be facilitated to go back home, as officials intensified a campaign for voluntary repatriation.

On Monday, UN Refugee Agency officials and Kenyan government officers witnessed an airlift of the first batch of Burundian refugees to return to Bujumbura following a deal between the two countries in June.

A UN planeload departed Kakuma with a visibly excited group of mostly women and children.

Kasili Mutambo, the Kakuma Camp Manager for the Refugees Affairs Secretariat said the return will strictly follow international law, including that those who depart are assisted to settle, through a partnership with the UN Refugee Agency [UNHCR].

Mr Mutambo told Nation that this repatriation was signal that Burundi was getting back its old peace, allowing its people to return and rebuild their country.

"Once authorities between the Kenya Government, the Country of origin for refugees and United Nations agency agree, refugees are voluntarily repatriated," he said.

The group left for home from the camp situated in Turkana West sub-county, with UN agency officials saying more of those departures could be imminent as the country, once troubled with violence stabilises under President Evariste Ndayishimiye who came into office last year in June.

Under President Ndayishimiye, refugees who had fled his country to neighbouring Tanzania, DRC, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya have been encouraged to return. Nearly 200,000 of them have returned home so far from these countries, with about 25,000 from Rwanda alone.

Voluntary repatriation

According to UNHCR, refugees who travel back home will be assisted through a donor-supported programme to settle in what is known within the agency as "durable solutions" to rebuild their lives in a stable environment, according to UNHCR Representative in Kenya Fathiaa Abdalla.

"Our priorities are to promote enabling conditions for voluntary repatriation, to ensure the exercise of a free and informed choice, and to mobilise support for returnees," the UNHCR said in a statement.

"In practice, we promote and facilitate voluntary repatriation through various means, including organising "go-and-see" visits for refugees, compiling updated information on their country and region of origin, engaging in peace and reconciliation activities, promoting housing and property restitution, and providing return assistance and legal aid to returnees."

Voluntary repatriation is Kenya's latest bid to convince refugees to return, as it seeks to close down Kakuma and Dadaab camps by June next year. Officially launched in 2014, it saw about 85,000 Somali refugees return to Somalia. It has now been expanded to cover all nationalities.

Burundian refugees are just about 3 per cent of Kenya's total refugee population of 520,000, most of who live in Dadaab and Kakuma. Burundians are about 12,200 in number but officials think the improving conditions back in their country could be the best incentive to convince them to return. Kakuma hosts most refugees from neighboruing South Sudan and includes others from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

However, refugees say they hope the resettlement sustains an environment they have come to be used to: That of peace and sustainable livelihoods.

Assisted to settle

For Ms Rose Chelia, Kakuma Refugee Camp is the only home she has known for the past 19 years after successfully fleeing the Second Sudanese Civil War and finding refuge in Kenya as a child while in the company of other refuge seekers.

She says that she has never left Kenya to even trace her roots since she settled at Kakuma Refugee Camp.

"I didn't even know whether am an orphan or my parents are still alive. It is so shocking to ever think of going back to my home country without prior knowledge of where I will settle and how I will rebuild my life," Ms Chelia said.

UNHCR Kenya spokesperson Eujin Byun has said that in the last six months, more than 400 Burundian refugees have been facilitated to go back to their home country.

Of these, 87 left Kakuma refugee camp on Monday, Ms Byun said.

She said that lately Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda authorities have also been working closely with UNHCR approaching the agency with expression and willingness to have citizens repatriated.

"Voluntary repatriation exercise will be ongoing as long as the refugees are sure that their mother countries are safe. We assure them that the process sustainable," Ms Byun said.

She assured 210, 000 refugees at in Turkana that security of those being repatriated is their main priority and tripartite agreement must exist between three parties; UNHCR, host country (Kenya) and country of origin.

"In the tripartite agreement we ensure the safety of refugees and we are sure they will be integrated after prior assessment of their protection from the communities they are returning to. We also ensure they will access basic services," Ms Byun said.

She maintains that information the refugees Independently gather from various unauthenticated parties must first be verified and confirmed for an well informed choice.

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