Somali refugees in Kenya downbeat about return

DADAAB, Kenya Fri Jan 12, 2007 9:27am EST

1 of 2. A Somali boy rests at a temporary refugee shelter one day after landing on the coast in Bir Ali along with 112 other Somali refugees in Mayfa'a, Yemen, October 10, 2006. At least 54 people have died making the perilous voyage across the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen since the beginning of last September, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Credit: Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

DADAAB, Kenya (Reuters) - Abdan Hassan Ali has been a refugee since he was three.

The bright, well-spoken and now 19-year-old Somali was top of his class at the high school he attended at a camp in north Kenya, and was picked to work as a clerk for a charity there.

Yet he has little prospect of furthering his education, finding proper work outside the camp -- or returning to the homeland his parents brought him from amid chaos during the ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

"I don't see the sense of going back to Somalia, this conflict has no durable solution," Ali said on a sandy street of Ifo, one of the three Dadaab camps housing some 160,000 Somalis who have fled violence and upheaval in the last 16 years.

Another year of conflict in 2006, which saw the rise and fall of a militant Islamist movement, sent more Somalis across the border into Kenya, until Nairobi closed it after New Year to tighten the net on fugitive Islamists.

And while an interim government holds sway in Somalia, many feel that the return of warlords, clan rivalry, and threats from remnant Islamists mean peace remains a distant prospect.

"If we go back, we will only be made to carry guns, so it is better to stay here. My dream is to get university education and to pursue a good career," Ali said.

That is extremely difficult, given that Kenya, while hosting camps, denies Somali refugees the right to work or pursue higher education outside them.

"It is frustrating, when you complete secondary education and you qualify for university and circumstances do not allow you to go, it is not fair. I was the best student in the camps and the second best in the whole region," Ali added.

"DRINKING FROM RIVERS"

Dadaab's sprawling refugee townships, split into countless blocks of dusty streets, swell over kilometres of land in Kenya's remote North Eastern province. Normally virtual desert, the camps suffered flooding at the end of 2006.

In contrast to virtual camp lifer Ali, 36-year-old single mother Halim Abdulahi Abdi is a new arrival.

During the battles that brought the Islamists to power in Mogadishu last year, her husband was killed at a checkpoint. So she fled with her sick child.

"I traveled 21 days carrying my son on a donkey cart," she said, sitting in the shade of a tiny shelter made of brush-wood and U.N.-provided canvas. "We were drinking from the rivers and sleeping under trees, there were so many dangers. I lost everything, what is there to go back for?"

Abdi, like many others, left everything to seek asylum in Kenya. She now lives alone. Her son did not survive the journey.

Geoff Wordley, senior emergency officer for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) at Dadaab, said the stamp "refugee" gave the Somalis no guarantee for the future.

"Even in the best case scenario that Somalia stabilizes, these people will have great difficulty in returning after fifteen years when their houses and land have changed hands," Wordley told Reuters.

Only three weeks ago did Kenya legalize the status and treatment of refugees, and begin issuing identity cards, he said. Aid agencies say there are 17,000 unregistered refugees.

However, Nairobi has tightened prohibition on movement between the refugee camps and other destinations by stopping commercial buses arriving to Dadaab.

"When it comes to integration, the Kenyan government does not do anything, we cannot move anywhere," Ali said.

So the lucky few make it to the West.

"In the camps, we see movies and many are longing to go to the U.S. or Canada or Australia for better education and living conditions," Ali said.

Dadaab's semi-permanent status has pushed it down the agenda of donors. But aid workers hope the recent, conflict in Somalia may draw more attention to the plight of Dadaab's refugees.

"Refugee situations are about quick solutions. Here, that is simply not possible," Wordley said.

"If too much development is permitted, it further prevents refugees to make a decision to repatriate. On the other hand, if we don't provide some developmental activity in the camps, then people remain completely dependent."

In Dadaab, makeshift homes are constructed with a mix of brushwood and scrap materials including cans stamped "USAID" or "WFP", then roofed with U.N.- stamped canvas tarpaulins.

Bashir Sharif Ali trekked with his family of six from central Somalia's Juba region last July.

Outside his home, he watched his kids play and pondered their future: "We have given up believing in peace in Somalia."