When the news reached Adiqa that Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camps would soon be shut down and everyone living in them had to leave, she wasn’t sure what to do. It seemed like madness to just pack up and go, after living there for the past five years. All her children were going to school for free. But dawdling didn’t seem to be an option either.
In the end, Adiqa and her husband decided to go with the flow. Together with other families, Adiqa, who was eight months pregnant at the time, her husband and their five children set out on the journey back to Somalia. On August 29, they arrived in Kismayo, the capital city of the Lower Juba region in southern Somalia. Just days later, her sixth child, a boy, was born. They named him Geedi, which means “traveller”.
Since the start of the voluntary return of Somali refugees from Kenya in December 2014, following the signing of a tripartite agreement between the two governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 38 000 refugees have returned.
The bulk of them — 32 000 —returned when the repatriation process intensified ahead of the November 2016 deadline for the camps’ closure. Most settled in Kismayo, with others going on to Mogadishu, Baidoa and other cities and towns in southern Somalia.
When I met Adiqa and baby Geedi, who was three months old, they were at a health clinic near the displaced persons’ camp they were living in, waiting to get Geedi checked for signs of malnutrition. Basic health and nutrition services have been provided free to all children and mothers — returnees and residents of host communities alike.
The returnees are also getting extra assistance to help them settle, including $90 worth of food a month from the World Food Programme (WFP) and $50 a month in cash from the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), for six months.
“When we arrived at the way station, they registered us and took fingerprints of all my 10 fingers, then gave me this card,” said Adiqa, with Geedi strapped to her chest, sound asleep. The card was loaded with the monetary assistance from the WFP and Unicef, and can be redeemed at any authorised shop for food or cash. The United Kingdom’s international development department is the major donor behind this innovative work, with a $7‑million contribution in 2016-2017 to the UN agencies working to support the resettlement of the Dadaab returnees.
“We are getting rice, sugar, vegetable oil and flour every month and that’s a big help, but they finish quickly so we have to look for other ways to support ourselves. My husband searches for charcoal and sells it in the market. He also delivers water to people to make some money,” said Adiqa.
Obtaining a decent place to live, enough food to feed the children, and basic health and education services is a daily struggle for millions of Somalis, and it is more so for the returnees. Many are disheartened by the reality they have found in their home country — poor living conditions, lack of jobs, no schools for their children and violence by extremist groups. Yet despite the frustration, disappointment and even helplessness that I heard in their stories, there was never regret.
Shuaib Barre Elmi (61) arrived in Kismayo in August. He now lives with his family in a camp for displaced persons and pays $20 a month in rent, which is no small amount for most Somalis. On top of that, he has to pay for firewood and water. “We were not given other options,” he said about the return. “Now we are here, and we are here to stay. We just wish that we could live in peace and have access to services.”
“They told us the camps would be closed by November and that we must go back to Somalia,” said Hawo Mudey Hasan. Her 10-month-old baby, Isho, had just been weighed by health workers. “When someone comes to you and tells you: ‘You can go home now,’ what could be better than that?”
This year, thousands more refugees are expected to return home from Dadaab. Meeting their basic needs will perhaps be one of the greatest tests of the ability of local governments and international aid agencies. They will be arriving in the middle of a severe drought that has now spread across Somalia.
More than half of Somalia’s total population of 11‑million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. The impact of the drought has been felt particularly hard by children — 326 000 under-fives are malnourished and the number is expected to rise to 944 000 this year.
Despite this, the returnees are determined to stay and be part of their communities. “I have no plan to go back to Dadaab,” said Quaali Khalif, a mother of six. “This is my country, and I am happy to be back. We need shelter, food and integration, in that order.” — Unicef