First U.N. special envoy for Somali refugees amid 'asylum fatigue'

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United Nations has appointed its first special envoy for Somali refugees to ensure they receive protection, following accusations by a rights group that Kenya has been forcing them out of the world’s largest refugee camp in a bid to close it.

Kenya, which says the returns are voluntary, called last week at the U.N. General Assembly for more funding to repatriate more than 300,000 Somali refugees living in Dadaab camp on its northern border.

“The Special Envoy will first help to maximize efforts to search (for) solutions for Somali refugees and asylum seekers at national and regional level and strive to enhance dialogue... to help maintain asylum,” the U.N. said in a statement on Friday.

Former Kenyan ambassador to Somalia, Mohamed Abdi Affey, was appointed in response to “recent security and political gains in parts of Somalia, along with growing pressures on host countries and related asylum fatigue,” it said.

One million Somali refugees are living in exile in neighboring Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti and Yemen and some 1.1 million Somalis are displaced within Somalia, it said.

Kenya hosts the largest Somali refugee population followed by Ethiopia, U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesman Duke Mwancha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Affey, who also served as special envoy to Somalia for the east African bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), has been appointed for an initial period of six months.

He will work to boost funding for humanitarian and development projects supporting the reintegration of Somali returnees, the U.N. said.

Returns from Kenya to Somalia have increased since Kenya announced in May that it would close Dadaab, saying the camp had been infiltrated by “terrorist cells”.

Some 31,000 Somali refugees have voluntarily returned home from Kenya since December 2014, Mwancha said.

Human Rights Watch said this month Kenya is harassing Somali refugees to return when it is not safe to do so.

Hunger is worsening in Somalia due to poor rains, with five million people now short of food, the U.N. said.

Kenya says Somali Islamist group al Shabaab has used Dadaab as a recruiting ground. The east African nation has been hit by a string of attacks by al Shabaab, including on a shopping mall in Nairobi and a university in the northeast.

Dadaab hosts three generations of Somali refugees, some of whom have been living in the dusty, sprawling camp since 1991.

(UNHCR corrects refugee populations in paragraph 6)