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UNHCR calls on Kenya to halt Somali returns

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UNHCR calls on Kenya to halt Somali returns

3 January 2007

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

GENEVA - The UN refugee agency expressed concern Wednesday over reports that Kenyan authorities were forcibly returning Somalis who had fled the recent strife in their homeland.

Several trucks carrying Somalis who had sought refuge in a UNHCR-supported reception centre near the Kenyan border town of Liboi were seen heading back towards Somalia on Wednesday morning. The reception centre had been holding some 400 Somali asylum seekers, primarily women and children, who have arrived over the past week.

In Geneva, High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said border security measures should not impair the ability of deserving Somali civilians to enter Kenya to seek safety and protection as refugees.

"We fully appreciate that the situation in neighbouring Somalia is a serious concern to the Kenyan authorities and that governments have a responsibility to ensure border security in such situations," Guterres said. "But Kenya also has a humanitarian obligation to allow civilians at risk to seek asylum on its territory. Most of those in Liboi are women and children and they should not be sent back to a very uncertain situation. To do so would be a transgression of the principle of non-refoulement as defined under the 1951 Refugee Convention."

Guterres said UNHCR had already extended an offer to provide immediate expertise and support to Kenya in dealing with new arrivals from Somalia, helping to ensure that it can meet its international obligations while also addressing its legitimate security concerns.

UNHCR already operates three large refugee camps at Dadaab, about 80 km from Liboi, holding more than 160,000 mainly Somali refugees. It also has several emergency staff already on the ground at Dadaab who can assist Kenyan authorities in dealing with any new influx. More staff could be sent.

About half of the approximately 400 Somalis in the Liboi reception centre had already been screened and registered by Kenyan authorities in a procedure previously agreed with UNHCR. Once they have been registered at the border reception centre, UNHCR normally transfers the newly arrived refugees to the Dadaab camps. But Kenyan authorities, citing security concerns, this week halted the transfers and announced the border had been closed.