With renewed hope, Somali refugees opt for voluntary repatriation

More than 80,000 Somali refugees have returned home from Dadaab camps since UNHCR started its voluntary repatriation programme in December 2014.

Fatuma Abdirahman and her 3 children ( Abdirizak 8, Salma 7 and Zeyni 14 months old) at the Dadaab airstrip shortly before their flight to Kismayo © UNHCR/ Mohamed Maalim

At the height of Dadaab refugee crisis of 2011 the population of Somali refugees was 466,683 individuals which made Dadaab the largest refugee camp in the world. However, following the onset of the voluntary repatriation programme in 2014 as well as spontaneous returns to Somalia, the camp population has declined and is currently 210,498.

Fatuma Abdi Rahman, a single mother of three, cradles her fourteen months old daughter Zeyni and affirms her hope to start afresh once back in her home country. “I am convinced that I will be able to support my family, once I am back in Kismayo. Having separated from my husband about a year ago, my children need me now, more than ever”, a determined Fatuma says.   According to Fatuma, education in Kismayo is not free in comparison to Dadaab, but, she expects to continue with her Henna business and pay school fees for her children.

Hope for a better life and access to jobs, is a major motivating factor among many Somali refugees, going back to their home country

In November 2013, a Tripartite Agreement was signed by the Government of Kenya, the Federal Government of Somalia and UNHCR, to provide a framework for the voluntary return of Somali refugees from Kenya. A pilot project was officially launched on 08 December 2014 with the six months of the pilot phase ending on 30 June 2015, to support refugees opting to voluntarily return to Somalia. During the pilot phase, 2,588 returnees were supported to return to three designated areas- Kismayu, Baidoa and Luuq. At the end of the pilot phase, the Tripartite Commission endorsed a strategy and four-year operational plan to support refugees and to continue with voluntary return.   After the success of the pilot phase, 6 more return areas were included i.e. Mogadishu, Beletweyne, Afgooye, Balad, Jowhar and Wanylaweyn. Currently there are 12 designated areas of return that include Belet Hawa, Diinsor town and Afmadow.   UNHCR works with other partners such as the Refugee Affairs Secretariat, Danish Refugee Council, Terres Des Hommes (TDH) and Save the Children International among others, to facilitate voluntary repatriation.

Voluntary repatriation

Refugees from Dadaab boarding a plane that would take them back to Somalia ©UNHCR/ Assadullah Nasrullah

Voluntary repatriation

A Somali youth returnee sits inside the plane, waiting for takeoff ©UNHCR/Assadullah Nasrullah

UNHCR believes that after 28 years of Dadaab camps there is a need to find long-term, sustainable solutions. Voluntary repatriation is considered as one of the sustainable solutions for a protracted refugee situation like Dadaab. UNHCR is determined to ensure that return to Somalia is taking place in a voluntary, humane, safe and dignified manner.  In order to ensure that refugees make an informed decision, the Return Help Desks located in the three camps of Dadaab, continuously provide updated Country of Origin Information and counselling for refugees willing to return. Key information on the repatriation process is also continuously aired on a local Dadaab based FM radio station.  As of now, more than 2,000 refugees have registered their willingness to return to Kismayo, Baidoa and Mogadishu. UNHCR is committed to continue facilitating their repatriation and reintegration in safety and dignity, within the framework of voluntary repatriation program.

Abdullahi Mohamed, a 40-year-old casual laborer in Dadaab is among those willing to return to Somalia. He says, “There is still lack of order, proper infrastructure and livelihood opportunities but, what can I do? It is still my country”.  With eight other people to feed, Abdullahi is hopeful that he will find work in Somalia that will earn him enough to fend for his family of 5 children and other relatives.  Hope for a better life and access to jobs, is a major motivating factor among many Somali refugees, going back to their home country.


Somali children happily wait for their voluntary return flight to Kismayo, Somalia. They are among the 1,473 people that have safely returned to Somalia from Kenya this year. ©UNHCR/ Assadullah Nasrullah

Voluntary repatriation

54-year-old Abdirashid Jama together with other young refugees at the transit center, moments before returning to Kismayo. ©UNHCR/ Assadullah Nasrullah

Voluntary Repatriation

Abdullahi Mohamed (40 years old) sits with his family of 8, before returning to Kismayo, Somalia ©UNHCR/ Mohamed Maalim

54-year-old Abdirashid Jama sits with some young refugees from the camps at the transit center, wait for their flight to Kismayo. From different families and different ages, they share the hope for a better future and job opportunities once they return to Kismayo.  After spending 15 years in Dadaab, Abdirashid decided it was time to go back to Somalia.   Having received various trainings from the various UNHCR partners on how to support delivery of services and peaceful co-existence in the community, he believes that his experience from Dadaab will help him get a job with the local government in Kismayo, Somalia. According to him, many refugees in the camp would like to go back to Somalia.  “I am happy to go back to Somalia. There are no job opportunities in Dadaab. Kismayo is peaceful and I hope I will find a job to support my family.” Abdirashid said.

As of now, more than 2,000 refugees have registered their willingness to return to Kismayo, Baidoa and Mogadishu

UNHCR supports the returning refugees from Kenya with standardized financial and in-kind assistance to ensure their safe and dignified return, as well as longer-term support once back in Somalia, to help them reintegrate into areas they once fled from.  Since October 2018, repatriation by road has been suspended due to military operations en route to Kismayo, Baidoa and other major return areas. Air transportation is currently the only option available for refugees willing to return to Mogadishu and Kismayo.   Air transportation has been used exceptionally for returns to Mogadishu, Kismayo and Baidoa, due to considerations related to distance, security, and logistics including road conditions especially during the rainy seasons. For a majority of returnees, return by road is a preferred option since they are able to take as much of their household items as possible, compared to travelling by flight.

There are 202,471 Somali refugees representing 96 % of the total population in Dadaab while other nationalities are 7,777 representing only 4% of the total Dadaab refugee population.   Globally, more than two million Somalis are currently displaced by a conflict that has lasted over two decades. There are 809,273 Somali refugees in the region, including some 259,334 in Kenya (in Dadaab, Kakuma and urban areas), some of who are third generation refugees.