Famine’s Final Blow: Somali refugees trapped by climate, politics and fatigue

The announcement by the Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia that famine could soon be a reality in some of the worst drought-affected areas in Somalia is the latest blow to Somali refugees in Kenya. Their future prospects look increasingly gloomy. This article summarizes the current highly negative dynamics facing Somali refugees.

Closure of Dadaab refugee camps and pressure to return

The Dadaab refugee camps in north-eastern Kenya camps are currently home to over 270,000 refugees, mostly of Somali origin. In May 2016, not for the first time, the Kenyan government announced its plans to close the Dadaab refugee camp before the end of the year.  Although Kenya had always backed down on previous occasions, observers agreed the government appeared more serious this time, having set a timeline and budget and disbanding the Department of Refugee Affairs. Despite high level visits by the United States Foreign Secretary and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and a joint NGO statement urging the government to reconsider its intention to close the refugee camps, the Kenyan government stuck to its decision. However, on 16 November the government announced that it would postpone, but not abandon its plan to close the camps and set a new deadline of May 2017.

Government officials have told refugees in Dadaab that if they do not go back to Somalia, they risk not getting the financial support package of USD 400, which is currently available under a joint UNHCR, Government of Kenya and Federal Government of Somalia voluntary return operation. According to Amnesty International, there is no alternative for refugees living in Dadaab who do not want to go to Somalia. If the camp closes they will have nowhere to go and some government statements made clear people will be forcibly returned to Somalia.

In possible anticipation of this, the pace of refugee returns from Dadaab refugee camp to Somalia continued to increase throughout 2016, bringing the total of returned refugees to 33,725 persons at the end of the year. However, the voluntariness of these returns has been questioned. Human Rights Watch concluded that none of the conditions for voluntary repatriation are being met under the current programme. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, 74 per cent of Somali refugees in Dadaab are unwilling to return home, largely as a result of insecurity in Somalia. Somali authorities expressed concerns that the return package is insufficient to allow returnees to fully integrate and pointed to the likelihood of most returnees going to already overstretched and under-resourced IDP camps. A report by Refugees Deeplyreported on 16,000 newly arrived returnees living in unsanitary shelters in overcrowded IDP camps outside Kismayo, with little access to medical care and no schools, while the International Institute for Strategic Studies pointed to the lack of job prospects and support networks, which will make young, repatriated Somali male refugees vulnerable to recruitment to al-Shabaab’s ranks and other criminal groups, destabilizing the security situation in the region.

Drought and possible famine in Somalia

Not only are Somalis returning to a volatile political context, amidst parliamentary and presidential elections and al-Shabaab stepping up its attacks to disrupt the election process, there is also the risk of famine in 2017. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS) recently issued a warning that famine is possible in 2017 due to severe drought, rising food prices, continued access limitations and dry forecasts. Following poor April to June rains and failed October to December rains in 2016, food security has deteriorated across Somalia, with an increasing number of people facing Crisis and Emergency levels of acute food insecurity and in need of emergency food assistance. Although forecasts are inconclusive, there are indications the 2017 April to June rains may fail again. In that case, massive loss of life may be expected, at similar levels to those witnessed in 2010/11, when an estimated 250,000 people died and close to 300,000 Somalis fled to neighbouring countries in 2011 alone.

No more resettlement and decreased funding for refugee hosting

On Friday 27 January 2017, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, signed an executive order suspending the entire US refugee admissions system for 120 days and banned entry from seven majority-Muslim countries, including Somalia, for 90 days. Generally, the US is responsible for the majority of resettled refugees: 53,000 of the 82,000 resettled refugees in 2015 were admitted to the US.

Compared to the total camp-population of Dadaab, only a small number of refugees are accepted for resettlement by the United States every year, on average around a 1,000. However, the US resettled more refugees from Dadaab than all other countries combined and it gave many of its inhabitants a sense of hope. Approximately 3,000 refugees were scheduled to be resettled in the US from camps in northern Kenya in 2017, the majority from Dadaab. Around 10,000 residing all over Africa were to be resettled in the US in 2017. Although it is unclear how the executive order will continue to affect planned relocations and what will happen after the 120 days, it is having an impact on the lives of Somali refugees now.

Furthermore, even if Dadaab stays open after May 2017, the conditions in the camps are likely to deteriorate. UNHCR receives around 40 per cent of its resources from Washington, while President Trump has announced an urgent review of US funding to all UN agencies with indications that its contributions will be reduced. The US is also the biggest donor of the World Food Programme (WFP), responsible for the food rations in refugee camps. After several previous cuts in food rations, WPF announced in December 2016 it was forced to make a new round of cuts in food rations for refugees in Kenya.

Closed-off onward migration routes

With the route to resettlement, closed off for almost all Somali refugees, at least for now, the prospect of the closure of Dadaab and possible forced returns to Somalia and worsening conditions in the Dadaab refugee camps and in Somalia, Somali refugees in Kenya may be looking for other ways out. The onward migration routes out of the Horn of Africa region are, however, increasingly closed as well, or becoming more difficult and dangerous to traverse.

In the wake of the ‘migration crisis’ in 2015 and with a record number of migrants and refugees from sub-Sahara Africa arriving in Italy along the so-called Central Mediterranean route in 2016, the European Union (EU) continues to launch new initiatives and efforts to control migration towards Europe. In late January 2017, the European Council President and the prime minister of Malta, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, said the refugee flow from Libya must stop before the summer this year and announced decisive action. EU interior ministers are pushing for plans to finance camps in northern Africa where the UN and aid groups would process migrants to prevent from crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. At the same, Europe is training the Libyan coastguard to prevent departures from Libya, exploring ways to stop migration from Egypt (another departure point), while closer to the origin countries, security forces in Sudan (a necessary transit country for Horn of Africa migrants travelling overland to Libya) have been deporting thousands of migrants throughout 2016. In 2015, over 7,000 Somalis arrived in Italy by sea. If successful, the efforts described above will thus close a migration route for thousands of Somalis.

Another route out of the Horn of Africa leads to South Africa. Every year, a few thousand Somalis apply for asylum in South Africa. However South Africa’s new position, articulated in its 2016 Green Paper on International Migration, states that irregular, economic migrants and criminal syndicates take advantage of weak immigration systems, gaps in policy and legislation and corrupt officials. To close these gaps, the paper recommends the establishment of secure administrative detention centres to accommodate certain categories of asylum seekers while their claims are being adjudicated. While it remains to be seen if these recommendations will be adopted, they will likely have a significant impact and make it more difficult to enter and settle in South Africa.

That leaves the eastern route to Yemen. Even though a record number of migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa arrived in Yemen in 2016 (more than 80 per cent Ethiopians), it is not an attractive alternative for Somalis. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as of November 2016, an estimated 18.8 million people in Yemen need humanitarian assistance of some nature, including 10.3 million who are in acute need. Furthermore, the UN warned that the conflict-driven food crisis in Yemen could become a full-blown famine in 2017. Furthermore, even though most migrants arriving in Yemen aim to transit through to Saudi Arabia, the current turmoil in Yemen leaves them vulnerable to abuse and cruelty at the hands of armed trafficking gangs.

(No)where to go?

Without many viable alternatives, where will Somali refugees go? Some will opt for the return package and try to build a new life in Somalia, although anecdotal evidence suggests that some are already coming back into Kenya. Others without the resources and networks to leave Dadaab, are likely to wait and see whether the camps will indeed be closed and whether they will be forcibly returned.

Those who do have resources, may seek alternatives to repatriation, for example by trying to settle in Nairobi as an irregular migrant or by moving to already overburdened neighbouring countries, such as Uganda. During previous periods of increased pressure on and hostility towards Somali refugees in Kenya, the Rift Valley Institute found that significant numbers were moving to Uganda as a safe haven.

Mèdicin sans Frontières (MSF) also suggested that with the threat of closure of Dadaab, the Dolo Ado refugee camps in Ethiopia may prove to be the only alternative. Good relations between locals, who are of Somali heritage, and refugees may encourage some Somali refugees to leave Dadaab and move to Dolo Ado. However, it remains to be seen how the Ethiopian (and Ugandan) governments will react in case of an increasing number of new Somali arrivals, especially since the upcoming drought or famine in Somalia is likely to further increase the refugee case load in Ethiopia.

Somali refugees are increasingly trapped within the region and the current dynamics all point to an increasingly difficult context in the year ahead. Governments within the region and in destination countries, as well as humanitarian actors and international agencies, would do well to closely monitor this situation, be prepared and be aware that any decision (whether in terms funding, closing off of migration routes, closing refugee camps, returning refugees to Somalia, or offering resettlement) is likely to have an impact in further compounding an already dire situation for hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees.

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.