Solving Somalia's refugee situation for good, together

INTERVIEW: A joint approach by all the countries that host Somalia's nearly 1 million refugees is the only way to find a long-lasting fix for a crisis now in its third decade, says Special Envoy



DADAAB, Kenya – Stalled piecemeal efforts to help the hundreds of thousands of Somalis forced from their homes by war means that it is time to refocus on a regional, joined-up response, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Special Envoy for Somali Refugee Situation has said.


Mohamed Abdi Affey spoke during a visit to Dadaab, the complex of refugee camps in north-east Kenya that is home to more than 275,000 refugees, 262,000 of them of Somali origin. Kenya has initiated a policy to close the camps, and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is working to ensure those refugees who return to Somalia do so voluntarily, while safeguarding the protection of those who remain.

In an interview, Affey, a former Kenyan ambassador to Somalia and Kenyan Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, who was appointed to his UNHCR post in September, described his regional responsibilities, gave an update the Government of Kenya’s decision to close Dadaab, and called for the international community not to forget the Somali situation.


Tell us about your job, and how you intend to achieve your main objectives.

My role as the High Commissioner’s Special Envoy is to put more focus on the Somali situation in the region, which is to say Yemen, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Uganda, and Somalia itself. The High Commissioner’s vision is to refocus to find a durable solution, and have it within the context of a regional framework. As we speak there are 1.2 million Somali refugees in all these countries, which means the solution to this particular situation must itself be a regional solution.

One of the main things that we will do is advocate for Somali refugees to receive continued protection, and to maintain the space for asylum. It is up to the states that host them to provide the protection they require, but because this is a protracted situation, and protracted situations can easily be forgotten, the host countries might imagine that the world has abandoned Somalis. They might imagine the whole principle of burden-sharing is no longer real when it comes to the Somalia situation. So part of my role is to encourage the states not to feel tired, to continue to stand by Somali refugees until such time that Somalia is a country stable enough to allow the massive return of its population.


The Government of Kenya said it wanted to close the Dadaab camps by the end of November 2016. Can you give an update on what is happening with regards to that?

First of all, we need to understand the nature of Dadaab. It’s a big complex, one of the biggest refugee camps in the world, and any closure requires deliberate, delicate planning and execution, and it needs to be informed by finding durable solutions. The three prominent ones are resettlement to a third country, local integration into the communities where the refugees exist, and voluntary return.

The Somali Government and the Kenyan Government, together with UNHCR, had a tripartite framework, an agreement, that was signed three years ago and that has lapsed. Since that agreement came into force, the camp population has reduced by over 160,000 people, both from assisted and spontaneous voluntary returns. Remember UNHCR is absolutely only supporting people who voluntarily want to go home. Then there are a number of people who are not Somalis, and not refugees, but they are Kenyans who have registered as refugees, and with the Government of Kenya we are removing them from the refugee database. Then there are a number of refugees in this camp who are not Somalis, and they are being relocated to Kakuma. That has started. Then finally there may be a number of refugees in Dadaab who require specific assistance based on their particular profiles.

All this has happened within the framework for the agreement that is expiring this month, the Tripartite Agreement, it is called. We have started the dialogue to assess what remains to be done and how that can be done. By extension, it means that dialogue will lead to an extension of fresh timelines, which then can be negotiated among these three parties, and I’m very hopeful that this will be done.


How do you respond to allegations that not all refugees returning from Dadaab to Somalia are doing so voluntarily, and to criticism of UNHCR for how it has handled this situation?

UNHCR does not advocate for return. UNHCR supports people who voluntarily wish to go back to their country. As we have seen today, it is a process. Anybody who wants to return is given information on the conditions inside Somalia.  After the initial decision, he or she is then given even seven more days to reflect  on whether he or she still wants to go to Somalia. Only after establishing that the return is voluntary,  does UNHCR and its 39 partners help that particular person have a safe and dignified return. UNHCR shares some of the concerns of those who have made criticisms and is in dialogue with them to address those concerns and agree a way forward.


What role does the international community have with regards to the Somali refugee situation?

I would like first to say that we as UNHCR and the international community really thank the Kenya Government and the Kenyan people for the hospitality they have shown, not only to Somali refugees but refugees running from crises in other countries. That is not to forget the host communities, in whose places the refugees live, who have shown considerable generosity and patience over this long period of time. Our appreciation really cannot be minimised. Thank you so much.

As to the rest of the international community, remember first of all that the Somali situation is a crisis situation, but unfortunately it has not been given the attention it requires. There are other crises around the world that demand equal or more attention, and I think to an extent the Somali situation was forgotten for a while because of other competing crises. We would like to appeal to the international community to emphasize finding stability in Somalia, so the return of Somalis from the region is sustainable, and does not affect the already fragile situation. We will require a lot of attention, a lot of investment, the mobilisation of a lot of resources, for the stability for Somalia, so that the Somalis can return not only from the sub region but around the world.