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From a life of fear to a life in limbo

A group of newly arrived Somali refugees listens to instructions from a security officer in Dadaab, Kenya, October 2008. The conflict in Somalia has forced many people to seek refuge in northeastern Kenya. Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
A group of newly arrived Somali refugees listens to instructions from a security officer in Dadaab, Kenya, October 2008
Fleeing Somalia may mean an end to dodging bullets and living in fear, but for many Somalis who manage to cross the border into Kenya, it is also the start of a long and difficult journey as a refugee.

"We have refugees who have been in Kenya since 1991," said Salam Shahin, registration officer with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Dadaab, the world's largest refugee complex, home to more than 300,000 people, mainly Somalis.

"On average, more than 5,000 mainly Somalis seek asylum in Dadaab per month but only about 8,000 are processed for resettlement [annually]; and only around 3,000 are actually resettled to third countries every year."

Asylum-seekers have often experienced extreme hardships on the way to Dadaab. Sirad Tahilil, 65, has been in the camp for a year. She initially fled the southern coastal city of Kismayo after the Islamist Al-Shabab group killed her son-in-law. She travelled for days, avoiding Al-Shabab roadblocks, to reach the Kenyan border.

"I was with 30 other people, including eight members of my family, my very sick husband, and taking care of two grandchildren," Tahilil told IRIN. "We arrived in Amume [town on the Kenya-Somalia border]; the police asked us where we were going. We told them we wanted to go the [refugee] camps but they refused to let us in until we paid them money.

"Each of us paid 1,000 [Kenya] shillings [US$12.50] and the truck owners paid them KSh20,000 [$250]. We had no choice; it was either pay them or get caught by those we were running from.

"After we arrived at the refugee camp in Hagardheer [one of Dadaab's three camps], we stayed with relatives for a few days until we were registered by UNHCR."

The process begins with registering asylum-seekers, which is followed by an interview to determine refugee status.

"Refugees from south-central Somalia are granted refugee status on a prima facie basis on the grounds of the long-running conflict in the region; those from the more peaceful northern regions of Somaliland [self-declared republic in the northwest of Somalia] and Puntland [self-declared autonomous region in the northeast] must provide evidence of persecution under refugee law in order to be granted status," said Shahin.

Verifying asylum-seekers’ identities and places of origin is hugely difficult. UNHCR does what it can, and asylum-seekers are required to sign a document attesting to the truth of their statements.

With basic necessities in limited supply, it is vital to ensure only legitimate claimants are able to receive food and other supplies. Dadaab is in Kenya's arid northeast, where drought and extreme poverty mean thousands of Kenyan Somalis have also been known to attempt to claim refugee status.

"Any person claiming to be a refugee can register with UNHCR. The introduction of fingerprinting in 2007 prevented persons from holding more than one record," Shahin said. "Together with the government, we have run all fingerprints through their database to ensure no Kenyans are registered; we also now hold verification exercises regularly."

After registration, a ration card is given to each refugee, along with a proof of registration form and an ID card with the bearer's name, photo, fingerprint, place of origin and other pertinent information. The ration card entitles the holder to non-food items such as tents, soap, jerry cans and mosquito nets, and to a bi-monthly supply of food, depending on family size.

"We get food and shelter but the food is never enough. The biggest problem is health," Tahilil said. "Up to now, I have not had a doctor to see my husband. But at least I don't have to worry about someone coming to my house and shooting me or a member of my family."

[Kenya] A woman drags a sack of food from the distribution centre at Hagadera refugee camp in Dadaab, 80 km from the Somali border, Kenya, 16 October 2006. An estimated 30,000 Somali refugees have arrived in Kenya since the beginning of the year to join 1
Photo: Siegfried Modola/IRIN
The stream of Somalis fleeing to Kenya continues. UNHCR estimates it will take up to eight years to consider all Somalis living in Kenya since 1991 and 1992 for resettlement
An agonizing wait

In the meantime, Tahilil waits to be resettled, a process that can be excruciatingly long. Hodan Ali Hussein, now 30, has been in camps for more than 20 years.

"We took a boat from Kismayo to Mombasa [on Kenya's east coast]; I was around 10 years old," Hussein said. "They took us to a refugee camp called Utanga near Mombasa. My mother and I stayed in that camp until 1997 when it was closed and we were sent to Dadaab.

"I know no other life than the one in the refugee camp... the worst thing is not knowing whether you will ever get out of the camp. There is no one you can ask.

"We finally went through a resettlement process," she said. "I am hopeful that we will be resettled and my children will have a better childhood than I had."

Several countries receive refugees from Dadaab: the US, Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and UK.

Resettlement lottery

Given that the number of annual arrivals vastly outstrips annual resettlements, UNHCR has to make some tough decisions when deciding who to put forward for consideration by resettlement country authorities.

"Somali households are chosen from the group of earliest arrivals - from the years 1991 and 1992 - using a computerized programme," Daniele Tessandori, UNHCR resettlement officer in Dadaab, said. "The programme chooses households on a random basis, ensuring that all blocks in each camp are given equal attention in the selection process.”

UNHCR estimates it will take up to eight years to consider all Somalis living in Kenya since 1991 and 1992 for resettlement. Not everyone will be lucky: individual refugees with acute protection issues are fast-tracked, regardless of nationality and date of arrival.

The camps are rife with rumours about the resettlement process, so UNHCR and the NGO, FilmAid, are developing a film to inform the refugees about the process and what they can realistically expect.

For Tahilil, who arrived a year ago, the prospect of resettlement remains remote. "I don't know whether I will get resettlement or not, but I am not optimistic because I found out that there are people who have been in the camps for over 20 years," she said.

Meanwhile, the stream of Somalis fleeing to Kenya continues unabated. According to UNHCR, there have been no new plot allocations for refugees since 2008; some newcomers stay with relatives, while more than 20,000 have spontaneously settled on the outskirts of the camps.

"There is tension with the host community as a result of the spontaneous settlements. Many of the refugees are living in flood-prone areas [and] congestion is increasing all the time," said Bettina Schulte, UNHCR external relations officer for Dadaab.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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