Somaliland's prosperous refugees return to invest in their country

News Stories, 24 March 2006

© UNHCR/K.McKinsey
A woman and her family outside the gate to their squatter compound at State House in Hargeisa. The fence is made of flattened tin cans, as are many of the homes impoverished returnees live in.

HARGEISA, Somaliland, Mar 24 (UNHCR) Ali Abdibihi is a bright, outgoing boy of 16 who is eager to practise his English with any visitor to the shantytown he calls home.

He lives in a traditional igloo-shaped home a tukul made of rags and flattened tin cans, with his blind father, his mother and six older sisters and brothers, all of whom are unemployed. Yet he sees clearly how he can help them: "I am going to be a professor. I am going to teach computer science."

The inspiration for such a precise ambition? A Somali who found refuge in Britain, earned a PhD there, and has come home to the Somaliland capital and set up an internet centre among the squatters' tukuls where he teaches computer science.

Hargeisa, the capital of the self-declared (but internationally unrecognised) state of Somaliland is bursting at the seams these days with people like Ali and his family former refugees who have come back to their country, but have nowhere to live but squalid settlements, often set up without permission on state or private land.

At the same time, the city is booming thanks to other returnees like the British-trained professor who are bringing home their skills learned in exile, and quite often their money as well. According to UN figures, Somalis abroad sent home $750 million last year to fuel the region's economy; this year the figure is expected to reach $1 billion. Much of that is fuelling Hargeisa's construction boom.

Somaliland, which is also known as north-west Somalia, broke away from the rest of the country and declared itself the independent Republic of Somaliland in 1991. It was devastated by a vicious civil war in the late 1980s under the central government of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, followed by outbreaks of anarchic inter-clan fighting after his fall in 1991.

"Not only did people come back from refugee camps in neighbouring countries," says Somaliland's foreign minister, Edna Adan Ismail, "but many also came from far afield. We have returnees coming back from Canada, from the U.S., from Britain, from Australia, from Saudi Arabia. These returnees and I am one of them are putting Somaliland back on its feet."

Across town from the Sheikh Nur settlement where Ali's inspirational internet centre is located, a more formal computer class is under way at Havoyoco (Horn of Africa Voluntary Youth Committee), a local non-governmental organization funded by UNHCR that claims that 90 percent of its graduates find paying jobs. Today a class of about 30 young women is learning how to enter data into a computer to process payments.

Elsewhere in Hargeisa, the Somali Women's Development Association (SOWDA) teaches basic literacy to girls and women, and also teaches skills like tailoring, incense-making and soap-making with funding from the UN refugee agency.

Ugbad Ibrahim Kahin, 16 years old, dreams of someday becoming a medical doctor. For now, seated behind a treadle sewing machine at the SOWDA centre, she's happy to learn tailoring because "sewing is something that will improve my life."

She's one of eight children, their father is dead, and their mother cannot find work, "so I thought I could be the one who could earn money and support the family," the teenager says.

Helping Somalilanders acquire skills to support themselves is one of many goals of a $200 million Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) to improve the lives of Somalis in the four main countries of asylum (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen) and returnees and displaced within the country.

In an area where being rich is defined as eating three meals a day, the regional CPA is designed to help place Somalis on a more stable footing by, among other aims, protecting returnees and displaced people, improving the nutrition of women and children, improving access to clean water, and increasing access to health care and education.

With initial backing by the European Commission, Denmark, Netherlands and the United Kingdom, UNHCR and other United Nations agencies plan to present the CPA to donors later this year. This fundraising event will be the first phase of a larger donor appeal that aims to turn an assessment of needs of Somalis into a three-year development plan.

Through these joint processes, the returnees in Somaliland should be in a better position to fully reintegrate and, together with other vulnerable groups, including those displaced internally, recover some "normalcy" in their lives.

© UNHCR/K.McKinsey
Students at a computer training centre run by the NGO Havoyoco and funded by UNHCR, in Hargeisa, the booming capital of the self-declared independent state of Somaliland.

Back at the foreign ministry, Edna (as the foreign minister is affectionately known far and wide) says investing in the future of returnees is a smart move, and that the energy of Somaliland's returnees who have come home from refugee camps and elsewhere can stand as a model to refugees in other countries.

"What is happening in Somaliland is encouraging for all refugees," she says, "that they should come home and rebuild their country like Somalilanders have."

By Kitty McKinsey in Hargeisa, Somaliland




UNHCR country pages

Return to Swat Valley

Thousands of displaced Pakistanis board buses and trucks to return home, but many remain in camps for fear of being displaced again.

Thousands of families displaced by violence in north-west Pakistan's Swat Valley and surrounding areas are returning home under a government-sponsored repatriation programme. Most cited positive reports about the security situation in their home areas as well as the unbearable heat in the camps as key factors behind their decision to return. At the same time, many people are not yet ready to go back home. They worry about their safety and the lack of access to basic services and food back in Swat. Others, whose homes were destroyed during the conflict, are worried about finding accommodation. UNHCR continues to monitor people's willingness to return home while advocating for returns to take place in safety and dignity. The UN refugee agency will provide support for the transport of vulnerable people wishing to return, and continue to distribute relief items to the displaced while assessing the emergency shelter needs of returnees. More than 2 million people have been displaced since early May in north-west Pakistan. Some 260,000 found shelter in camps, but the vast majority have been staying with host families or in rented homes or school buildings.

Return to Swat Valley

Tanzanian refugees return to Zanzibar

The UN refugee agency has successfully completed the voluntary repatriation of 38 Tanzanian refugees from Zanzibar who had been residing in the Somalia capital, Mogadishu, for more than a decade. The group, comprising 12 families, was flown on two special UNHCR-chartered flights from Mogadishu to Zanzibar on July 6, 2012. From there, seven families were accompanied back to their home villages on Pemba Island, while five families opted to remain and restart their lives on the main Zanzibar island of Unguja. The heads of households were young men when they left Zanzibar in January 2001, fleeing riots and violence following the October 2000 elections there. They were among 2,000 refugees who fled from the Tanzanian island of Pemba. The remainder of the Tanzanian refugee community in Mogadishu, about 70 people, will wait and see how the situation unfolds for those who went back before making a final decision on their return.

Tanzanian refugees return to Zanzibar

The Reality of Return in Afghanistan

Beyond the smiles of homecoming lie the harsh realities of return. With more than 5 million Afghans returning home since 2002, Afghanistan's absorption capacity is reaching saturation point.

Landmine awareness training at UNHCR's encashment centres – their first stop after returning from decades in exile – is a sombre reminder of the immense challenges facing this war-torn country. Many returnees and internally displaced Afghans are struggling to rebuild their lives. Some are squatting in tents in the capital, Kabul. Basic needs like shelter, land and safe drinking water are seldom met. Jobs are scarce, and long queues of men looking for work are a common sight in marketplaces.

Despite the obstacles, their spirit is strong. Returning Afghans – young and old, women and men – seem determined to do their bit for nation building, one brick at a time.

Posted on 31 January 2008

The Reality of Return in Afghanistan

Nigeria: Back to schoolPlay video

Nigeria: Back to school

When gun-toting Boko Haram insurgents attacked villages in north-eastern Nigeria, thousands of children fled to safety. They now have years of lessons to catch up on as they return to schools, some of which now double as camps for internally displaced people or remain scarred by bullets.
Return to SomaliaPlay video

Return to Somalia

Ali and his family are ready to return to Somalia after living in Dadaab refugee camp for the past five years. We follow their journey from packing up their home in the camp to settling into their new life back in Somalia.
Return to SomaliaPlay video

Return to Somalia

Ali and his family are ready to return to Somalia after living in Dadaab refugee camp for the past five years. We follow their journey from packing up their home in the camp to settling into their new life back in Somalia.