U.N. agency eyes 50,000 Somalis returning from Kenyan camp

DADAAB, Kenya (Reuters) - The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR is planning for as many as 50,000 Somalis to return home this year from a Kenyan camp that is now home to 350,000 people, but that figure may not be reached given concerns many refugees still have about problems back home.

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About 6,000 Somalis returned from Dadaab camp last year under a voluntary repatriation program, while an additional 1,200 have left so far in January, including a group of families and individuals who left the sprawling camp on buses on Thursday.

Somalia is trying to rebuild after two decades of war and chaos. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis fled to Kenya and other neighboring states after civil war erupted in 1991. More fled the 2011 famine. At its peak, Dadaab hosted 580,000 people.

“We are trying to plan for a possible 50,000 people (returning) in 2016,” Raouf Mazou, the UNHCR representative to Kenya, told Reuters in Dadaab camp.

He said, however, this figure for possible returnees might not be achieved without additional targeted aid to help those seeking to resettle meet basic requirements, such as school fees. “They need specific support inside Somalia,” he said.

Returnees already receive a one-off cash handout and some basic foodstuffs and other items to help them get reestablished.

But U.N. officials said some of the main complaints by those who had returned were about lack of schooling or adequate shelter, after leaving a camp where basic needs were met.

Those who have not opted to return cite security as a major worry. “I want to go back,” said 50-year-old Mihiya Abdi Ali, who has been in Dadaab 25 years. “It is my motherland but because of the current security situation I cannot go back.”

Kenya wants to close the camp, which it has said Somali militants have used in the past to launch attacks. Last year, it even threatened to relocate the refugees if the United Nations failed to do so, but it has not acted on its threat.

European Union Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides, speaking on a tour of the camp on Thursday, said it was vital that returnees went back to a safe environment with access to basic services, like schools.

“Without education, radicalization is very possible - and forced recruitment and forced marriage,” he said, on a trip in which he announced the EU would spend 77 million euros ($83 million) on humanitarian aid for 2016 in the Horn of Africa.

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Editing by Drazen Jorgic, Toni Reinhold