Nairobi - Somali refugees in Kenya must only return home
voluntarily, the United Nations said on 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 Shabaab extremists on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall in September.
After the attack, several Kenyan officials pointed the
finger at the north-eastern camp of Dadaab - 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 Shabaab in recent years.
"We all agree on the need to restore our brothers and
sisters from Somalia to their full dignity and normal life," Kenyan
Vice-President William Ruto said, speaking at the signing in Nairobi on Sunday.
The 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
"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.