Somali refugees under pressure to repatriate after US ban

A woman at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Photo by: IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

A U.S. executive order pausing the refugee program and barring nationals from seven countries from entering the United States for 90 days could endanger thousands of Somalis who had been cleared for resettlement, aid agencies and humanitarian workers warn.

Analysts told Devex that the order may also empower extremist elements within Somalia, which could benefit from a new pool of disaffected recruits. Frustration toward the U.S. ban could unravel goodwill toward Washington among the refugee population.

Somali refugees are under increasing pressure to return home — despite ongoing threats to their safety — as borders and camps close in the region and internationally. The U.S. block would pause or end one of their last lifelines for resettlement.

Somalis were already facing growing repudiation by governments in the East African countries where they have sought shelter. Kenya, which has suffered repeated attacks by the Somali-based terrorist group al-Shabab, has vowed to close the largest refugee camp there, Dadaab, and either move the roughly 300,000 refugees to another camp or encourage their voluntary return to Somalia.

Leaders of the Somali community in Kenya worry that Trump’s orders will encourage an even broader regional backlash against them and undo efforts by the previous U.S. administration to block Dadaab’s closure.

Humanitarian agencies say that may leave refugees with no choice but to return to their homeland — a country that is ill-prepared to receive them. Along with violence that appears to be increasing ahead of a scheduled presidential vote on Feb. 8, a potential famine is looming in parts of the country following last year’s poor rainy season and the ongoing insecurity.

“I have grave concerns about the further danger this will put people in,” said Lane Bunkers, the Somalia country director for Catholic Relief Services. The faith-based agency supports hundreds of thousands of displaced people across the country’s south. “These are already groups that are seeking to flee the country or are refugees and this is putting them in further harm’s way.”

Dreams diminished

The mood is grim in Dadaab, set in eastern Kenya. Just two weeks ago, dozens of refugees were making their final preparations to fly to the United States to restart their lives. A further 13,000 had been cleared for resettlement.

Now, in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration order, all bets are off. Despite a temporary court block allowing resettlement to continue, many here expect the administration’s immigration policy to tighten in the coming years.

“It’s sad to see families that have invested time and limited money to go through years of health and security screenings with the U.S. resettlement program only to see their dreams come to dust,” said Abdurahman Sharif, the director of the Somalia NGO Consortium.

If the order is allowed by U.S. courts to go ahead, it’s not clear if and how the resettlement program will restart after the 120-day pause. At a minimum, many refugees would need to begin the clearance process again, as their medical tests and other screenings would have expired.

Somali refugees fled a country that has been consumed in turmoil off and on since its government collapsed in 1991. Just over a decade later, al-Shabab, an Islamic extremist group now aligned with al-Qaeda, emerged in the political vacuum. For a decade, an African Union force has traded territory with the group, even as the militants have conducted attacks in neighboring countries. That included the 2013 seizure of the Westgate mall in Nairobi, when gunmen killed more than 60 people.

The bulk of al-Shabab’s brutality has targeted Somali citizens, including a December attack on Mogadishu’s main port that killed at least 29 people. Human Rights Watch estimates more than 1 million Somalis are displaced internally and hundreds of thousands more have fled the country in search of safety.

The vast majority have ended up in nearby nations, including 250,000 in Yemen, which is facing its own internal crisis, and more than 330,000 in Kenya, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

Somalia’s protracted crisis has made its nationals top candidates for third country resettlement. The United States admitted 8,800 Somali refugees in fiscal year 2015, the third-highest resettlement total, behind Iraq and Burma.

Sarah Krause is a senior program director for Church World Service, one of the agencies tasked by the U.S. government with preparing case files for people going through the refugee process. When Trump’s order came down, she said there were more than 100 Somalis who were just days away from traveling to the United States.

Krause described the situation now as “bleak.” During the delay, she said it is likely that security and medical clearances will expire as the refugees wait, which can set their process back months — if it ever restarts.

Sharif said since Trump’s order, hundreds of the vetted refugees have already returned to Dadaab refugee camp. The refugees who were expecting to be resettled soon, Krause said, will have no homes or jobs to return to; they gave it all up before their expected departure.

“They are going back to nothing,” she said.

A view of the Dadaab refugee complex. Photo by: Anouk Delafortrie / ECHO / CC BY-ND

A last refuge

Their dreams of resettlement diminished, Somali refugees may also see their refuge in Kenya disappear soon.

Following the attack on Westgate and another al-Shabab assault in 2015 on a Kenyan university that left nearly 150 people dead, Nairobi instituted a crackdown on the Somali community in Kenya. That included the announcement in May 2016 that officials were closing Dadaab over security concerns and pushing for the repatriation of its residents.

Food rations to the camp have been cut and the government revoked prima facie refugee status, which means Somalis must have their cases individually assessed. HRW reports this has created conditions in which refugees feel they have no choice but to return to Somalia.

CRS’s Lane said since the announcement, there has been an increase in the numbers of people trickling into displacement camps within Somalia, although the numbers are still low.

The Obama administration had been part of the global outcry against the decision to close Dadaab, which eventually earned camp residents a six-month reprieve. Instead of closing in November, as was originally planned, Nairobi agreed to wait until May of this year.

Without U.S. pressure, analysts worry there will be no further extension.

“Certain elements in the leadership in Kenya may feel emboldened by Trump’s decision and there is a risk Nairobi may now escalate the pressure on the [international community] to close down the camp,” said Rashid Abdi, the director of the International Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa project. “The Obama administration was instrumental in forcing Kenya to rethink its timetable.”

Abdi and others worry that the U.S. ban will be used to justify a broader rejection of Somali refugees — both in the region, but also globally. Ultimately they may be left with no choice but to return to the country they are trying to escape, prompting a much larger humanitarian crisis.

A backlash back home

Somalia is set to hold a presidential vote on Feb. 8, ending months of delays. The progress has been held up as a signal of increased stability. In reality, al-Shabab continues to terrorize much of the country.

Mohamed Harbi, a Somali development consultant for the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and others, was blunt about what it will mean if refugees are effectively forced to repatriate: “America will be sending the Somalis to be slaughtered.”

Disaffected returnees will also provide al-Shabab with a recruiting base, he said, undermining the stated intention of Trump’s ban to reduce terrorism.

The U.S. resettlement program had inculcated significant goodwill toward the United States among Somali communities, said Ibrahim Hussein, a political analyst. That feeling was buoyed when a Somali refugee was elected to the Minnesota State Legislature in last year’s elections.*

Trump’s ban feels like an unexpected betrayal, he said, signaling the new U.S. administration sees Somalis not as potential allies in the fight against terrorism, but as possible conspirators with the militants.

“They’re painting all Somalis with the same brush,” Hussein said. “It’s chaotic. It’s very frustrating.” And he said it has been particularly debilitating for the thousands of Somalis who were already in the midst of a vetting process that can take at least four years, if not longer.

Pablo Traspas, the Kenya country director for the Center for Victims of Torture, which works in two of Dadaab’s five camps, said some of his organization’s clients were in the process of being vetted for resettlement in the United States. Now they feel like they have been re-victimized.

“This is creating a kind of continuous trauma for our clients,” he said. “That means the trauma is not healing.”

Meanwhile, refugees will be returning to a country that may be facing severe food shortages in the coming months and even a possible famine, according to a recent report from the Famine Early Warning System Network. The analysis points to severe droughts in some parts of the country with little relief in sight and ongoing difficulties reaching communities because of insecurity.

CRS, which runs a voucher program to help people purchase goods from local markets, has reported that food prices have already started to climb in some places. That could signal the beginning of a much larger crisis.

“There will be challenges with access to clean water as rivers and water sources are drying up,” Bunkers said. “Then there is the impact that could have on child protection issues, protection for the elderly. There are a number of humanitarian issues that could follow.”

* Update, Feb. 9, 2016: This article has been updated to clarify that a Somali refugee was elected to the Minnesota State Legislature in 2016.

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About the author

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    Andrew Green

    Andrew Green is a Devex Correspondent based in Berlin. His coverage focuses primarily on health and human rights and he has previously worked as Voice of America's South Sudan bureau chief and the Center for Public Integrity's web editor.