Migration policy in Somalia: Returning home by choice and force

Almost half of Somalia's population fled the country during 25 years of civil war. Now, the transitional government is trying to bring its citizens back home – with help from the EU.

A boy with a toy gun in Mogadishu Foto: reuters

An estimated one-half of the population of Somalia, according to the World Bank, has left its homeland during the past 25 years of civil war: over four million Somali. This makes Somalia one of the key countries of origin of refugees on the continent.

Most of them sought refuge in neighbouring countries: Almost half a million Somali refugees were living across the border in the north-eastern desert regions of Kenya during peak periods of flight and drought in Somalia in 2011 and 2012. About a million still live in Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti and Yemen today. Over a million displaced persons are seeking refuge within the country, mostly in the secure regions of Puntland and Somaliland – both virtually independent states that have not been internationally recognised.

In Somalian language and culture, a word has lately come to be used for the dangerous journey to Europe: “wuu tahribay“ is said among families, in telling the news that a son has set off to try his luck in Europe. In Arabic, the term is used in connection with smugglers and human traffickers; in the Somali language, particularly in Puntland and Somaliland, it refers to migration to Europe. A favoured destination is Sweden.

The routes are hazardous and diverse: The eastern route crosses the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq and Syria, on the way into Turkey and finally to the Balkans. The sea route leads across the Red Sea and the Sinai Peninsula, then over the Mediterranean to the Aegean Region; the western route passes via Ethiopia through Sudan and Libya. The number of applicants for asylum in the EU has been rising for years. In 2015, there were around 21,000 Somali applications, of which 5,500 were approved and over 3,000 rejected. Since August 2016, Somalia has been listed at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) as one of the countries of origin with good chances to remain in Germany. Until then, the list had included only Eritrea, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

In large parts of Somalia, brutal civil war has prevailed for the last 25 years. The Islamist militia Al-Shabaab has had intermittent control of significant parts of the country. However, not all Somali living abroad are war refugees, but also young men and women from the relatively peaceful areas of Somaliland and Puntland. A study by the Rift Valley Institute indicates that the ratio of young Somali from these regions who leave the country after finishing school is almost exactly as high as the ratio of those from the conflict zones. Most of them are looking for work that corresponds to their education level, since there are no jobs to be found in their homeland, says the study. “Migration is a path to success in the Somali culture“, states Bram Frouws, a migration specialist at the think tank RMMS, which researches migration movements on the Horn of Africa. Many Somali now holding major positions in the country's current government and economy have returned from a period of exile in Europe or the USA.

Measures to stabilise Somalia

The international community has undertaken costly endeavours in recent decades to stabilise the country during the civil war. Since 2007, the African Union (AU) has maintained a stabilising mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which is substantially funded by the EU: More than €1 billion have been spent since 2007 on the payroll of Ugandan, Kenyan and Burundi AU soldiers and police officers. Yet in early 2016, in the course of setting up the EU's military mission in Mali, Nigeria and the Central African Republic, the EU reduced its share of the AMISOM budget by 20 percent. In the first half of 2016, Kenya and Uganda then complained of outstanding payments to its soldiers in Somalia. Both countries threatened to pull out of the mission. In September 2016, the EU approved a further $178 million.

In 2010, the European Union (EU) had already established a training mission for the practically non-existent army. Soldiers, especially officers, were trained by European military officers, though not within Somalia's borders. Owing to the state of security, the Somali troops were flown to Uganda and then drilled by European trainers for months at a time. In 2015, the mission (EUTM) was moved to Mogadishu. At the present time (as of the end of 2016), nearly 200 European soldiers are still stationed there in order to instruct Somali officers.

Within the civil EU mission EUCAP Nestor (Regional Maritime Capacity Building Mission in the Horn of Africa and the Western Indian Ocean), European instructors have been training the Somali coast guard in its struggle against piracy since 2012.

Operation Homecoming

At of the end of 2016, elections were planned in which the clan chiefs were to vote for a new government – a further criterion to stabilise the country. Refugees were to play an important part in the elections. Their return would supposedly contribute toward democratisation and the legitimisation of a new transitional government, and thereby to the country's stabilisation. It might even have been considered possible that the entire population would participate in the election, as a government spokesman implied: “Keep in mind that your return is a sign of the revival of peace in Somalia and that if you return, you might make a difference to your country“, he appealed to over 270,000 Somali refugees then remaining at the Kenyan centre Dadaab.

In 2013, the Kenya and Somalian governments reached a trilateral agreement with the UNHCR on closing the refugee centres in Kenya. At that point, the deadline for voluntary return was set for the end of November 2016. Somalia and Kenya wanted to hold to this date, and correspondingly raised the pressure on the refugees. UNHCR, on the other hand, holds firm to the international principle of freedom of choice to return, and anticipates that repatriation might be concluded by the year 2032.

In June 2016, Hassan Sheikh Mohammud became the first Somali president to visit Dadaab in Kenya. He promised his compatriots: “We don't want you to be forced to return without available housing, education and health care services“. He remained silent as to who should finance these offers. In 2016, UN refugee agency UNHCR received not even a third of the $150 million assessed to be necessary for the provision of Somali refugee aid. To assimilate so many returning refugees in such a short time would be a Herculean task for a country that has been almost completely destroyed by over 20 years of war, stated Somali government spokesperson Daud Awais.

Dependent on aid money

The EU ranks as the largest financial donor to Somalia's stabilisation. For a long time, “combating the causes of flight“ was the catchphrase for the EU strategy toward Somalia, but in recent times, the focus is predominantly on supporting those who return. Since Kenya announced the closure of its refugee centres, 17,000 Somali have packed their belongings and been flown out on UN aircraft. Currently, 275,000 Somali are still living in Dadaab alone. Within Somalia, four “safe zones“ have been determined for returns, including the capital Mogadishu and the coastal city of Kismayo. Voluntary returnees are given a supply of food for 6 months and $150 per person from UNHCR. This does not correspond to the definition of “voluntariness“ and is thus infringing upon international rights, declares Victor Nyamori of Amnesty International in Kenya. There are apparently more “push factors“, foremost including the fear of violent deportation, than “pull factors“, such as a better life back in the homeland.

Money for Somalia has been authorised by the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa as well: the EU is paying €50 million to the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to handle the re-entry and reintegration of returning refugees. Most of those returning find their homes destroyed or occupied and must take shelter in the centres for displaced persons now being erected by international NGOs. The EU is investing a further €10 million in drought-ridden North Somalia, in order to combat root causes of flight.

Within the framework of the National Indicative Programme (NIP), Somalia has benefited from €286 million from the EU Development Trust Fund. Further funds were distributed to Somalia within the scope of the regional Khartoum Process, and also as part of support measures from the regional organisation IGAD and the African Union.

The return of Somalian refugees has a further relevance for Europe. As soon as great numbers of refugees from Kenya come back to the country, European authorities will be able rank Somalia as a safe country after all.

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