The United Nations has declared that famine conditions in south-central Somalia no longer exist. But the ongoing conflict in the country, coupled with a precarious food situation, will keep large numbers of Somali refugees from voluntarily returning anytime soon – this despite the rising insecurity in refugee-hosting areas of Kenya and Ethiopia. This insecurity poses a serious threat to protection and services for refugees. However, it also provides an opportunity to shake-up the unsustainable way that agencies have delivered services for decades. Despite security restrictions on access, donor governments must maintain their level of focus and funding for refugee operations in the region.
Restart Refugee Registration
In mid-October 2011, the Government of Kenya suspended the registration of new refugee arrivals to Dadaab. The government justified its decision on two grounds – that the refugee camps were filled beyond their capacity, and that receiving more refugees would pose a threat to national security. Kenya deserves credit and support for hosting such a large number of refugees for so many years. However, as its military focuses on securing areas in southern Somalia, the Kenyan government seems to be moving away from its decades-long tradition of being a generous host to Somalis seeking refuge from conflict and food insecurity.
As a party to the Convention on the Status of Refugees, Kenya is failing in its obligations under international law by suspending registration of new arrivals. Refugees are still arriving in Kenya despite the suspension of registration. However, without registration, these new refugee arrivals cannot access all of the assistance to which they are entitled. RI heard of existing refugee communities – themselves food-insecure – having to collect food to share with new arrivals. This has an impact on the nutritional status of the whole refugee community. The registration process in the past enabled the identification of particularly vulnerable individuals, as well as medical screenings. Without registration, however, vulnerable individuals are often not identified or referred for appropriate assistance, such as family tracing or medical care. Further, unregistered new arrivals are not allocated shelters, which leaves many of them living on the outskirts of camps, with greater exposure to sexual exploitation, abuse, and attacks.
The registration process also includes security screenings, which can identify individuals who should be excluded from refugee status, or who might pose a threat to camp residents, police, aid workers, and the Kenyan population generally. It is in Kenya’s security interests to know who is residing in the camps. Kenya’s Department for Refugee Affairs has signaled that it may resume registration at some point soon, but as of the publication of this report, this had not yet happened. The U.S. government and other key donors must engage with the Kenyan government to ensure that registration activities resume promptly.
Wide-scale re-verification of all residents in the Dadaab camps, funded by the international community, also needs to be undertaken. Over the past 20 years, refugees have arrived both en masse and individually, and recording of demographic details has been inconsistent. There is a lack of clarity about the populations currently living in Dadaab, including information about their origins, their professional backgrounds and skills, and any particular vulnerabilities. UNHCR is planning a rapid re-verification exercise for 2012, but a more comprehensive assessment is needed. A wide-scale re-verification exercise, including the use of biometrics, would be an investment in Kenya’s security. It would also allow for the identification of vulnerable individuals, the tailoring of programs to refugees’ needs and abilities, and the targeting of skills and capacity-building programs. This would all lead to improved planning for durable solutions for the camps’ residents, including voluntary return when and if the time is right.