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UN: Repatriation of Somali refugees must be voluntary

11 November 2013, 13:36

Nairobi - Somali refugees in Kenya must only return home voluntarily, the United Nations said Monday, after signing a deal easing fears of possible forced returns of over half a million refugees.

"Returns should be conducted in safety and dignity," said Raouf Mazou, Kenya representative of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), adding that it would support organised repatriations only when "conditions are right".

The joint deal -- inked on Sunday by Kenya, Somalia and UNHCR -- comes amid refugee fear of retaliatory attacks following a deadly attack by Somalia's Al Shabaab militants on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall in September.

After the attack, several Kenyan officials pointed the finger at the Dadaab refugee camp -- the world's largest refugee complex hosting over 400,000 people, mainly Somalis fleeing war -- as being a "training ground" for extremists.

Rights groups have accused Kenyan police in the past of a brutal campaign against Somali refugees, following a string of grenade attacks or shootings inside Kenya blamed on supporters or members of the Shabaab.

"Any refugee has the right to choose whether to go home, after they have been given information about conditions on the ground in Somalia so they can make an informed decision," Mazou added.

Somalia remains riven by war but some areas are more stable, with a 17,000-strong African Union force -- including Kenyan troops -- wresting a series of towns from the Shebab in recent years.

"We all agree on the need to restore our brothers and sisters from Somalia to their full dignity and normal life," Deputy President William Ruto said, speaking at the signing in Nairobi on Sunday.

UNHCR has registered 493,000 Somali refugees in Kenya, but Nairobi claims to hosts double that number.

"It is not the tradition for an African country to complain about visitors, especially those fleeing from danger," Ruto added.

"Even so, the large number of undocumented refugees, as well as the sheer magnitude of the entire refugee burden has created unprecedented security challenges for Kenya."

Although Somalia's government remains weak outside the capital, Foreign Minister Fawzia Yusuf Adan said her government would work to provide opportunities to encourage refugees to come home.

"My government, with the help of the international community, shall put in place conditions conducive for the return of the refugees," she said.



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