Forced migrations and voluntary returns
by Simone Schlindwein
Almost one third of the Somali population has fled in 25 years of civil war – more than four million people in absolute numbers. Now the transitional government is making efforts to bring them back home. The EU is helping.
Much of Somalia has been torn by brutal civil war for 25 years. Since the overthrow of the authoritarian ruler Siad Barre in 1991, there has been virtually no central government controlling the entire country. The Islamist militia Al-Shabaab had occupied parts of the country in the meantime. Furthermore, for a long time pirates were raiding the strategically important coasts of the Gulf of Aden, regularly passed by international container ships. Since 2007, the African Union (AU) has maintained a peace mission in Somalia to combat Al-Shabaab and protect the young government.
Currently, more than 22,000 soldiers, police forces and civilian employees from Ethiopia, Burundi, Djibouti, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Uganda are stationed in Somalia within the framework of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). Despite initial successes of the peace mission against the militia, even today the effective control of the now elected government hardly extends beyond the borders of the capital Mogadishu. Terrorist attacks continue to occur regularly, especially aimed at government buildings in the centre of the city.
In 2017 elections were held for the first time since the fall of the former authoritarian ruler Siad Barre in 1991. According to the transitional constitution, only the approximately 14,000 clan leaders were allowed to elect representatives, since half of the population was in exile anyway. In June 2019, the most important Somali government representatives met on allied territory in Uganda to discuss the elections scheduled for 2020 in safe hotels. Halima Ismail Ibrahim, chairman of the National Independent Electoral Commission of Somalia (NIEC), urged parliament to amend the electoral law to allow universal suffrage for all citizens. It would be the first time in 50 years that all Somalis had the right to vote in person. However, it is still unclear whether the elections can actually take place. The security situation is tense.
Migration: effect of war and part of Somali culture
According to World Bank estimates, one third of the Somali population have left their homeland in the past 25 years of civil war, which adds up to more than four million people. This makes Somalia one of the main countries of origin for refugees on the continent.
Most of them have been seeking shelter in neighbouring countries: When forced migration movements were the most intense, at the height of the drought in 2011 and 2012, almost half a million Somali refugees were living beyond the borders in the north-eastern desert region of Kenya. According to UNHCR, around 730,000 of them are still living in Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Yemen. More than one million Somalis are internally displaced and seek protection within their home country, mostly in the safe regions of Puntland and Somaliland – both of which are quasi-autonomous states that broke away from Somalia during the civil war but are not internationally recognised.
Among the Somalis living abroad are not only war refugees, but also young men and women from the relatively peaceful areas of Somaliland and Puntland. According to a study conducted by the Rift Valley Institute, the number of young people who set off on their journey after leaving school is almost as high in these areas as in the embattled zones. Most are looking for a kind of work that matches their level of education, as there are no jobs in their home country, the study says. “Migration is a path to success in Somali culture,” explains Bram Frouws, a migration specialist at the RMMS think tank where migration movements in the Horn of Africa are studied. Many Somalis who today play an important role in the government and economy of the country have come back from exile in Europe or the USA.
In the Somali language there is now a word for the dangerous journey: “wuu tahribay” is what a family say when they report that their son has set out to seek his fortune in Europe. In Arabic, the term is used in connection with smugglers and traffickers. In Somali, especially in Puntland and Somaliland, it refers to migration to Europe. A popular destination is Sweden.
The routes are varied: the eastern one stretches from the Gulf of Aden, via the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq and Syria to Turkey, and on through the Balkans. The sea route traverses the Red Sea, across the Sinai and further via the Mediterranean through the Aegean Sea. The western route runs through Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya.
Somalis form one of the ten largest groups of asylum seekers in the EU. According to 2018 figures, they make up three percent of all asylum seekers in Europe, with an average recognition rate of 53 percent. In 2018, about 10,000 refugees from Somalia applied for asylum in the EU. Of these, 5,500 applications were successful while more than 3,000 were rejected. In Germany, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), Somalis make up the third largest group of asylum seekers from Africa after Nigerians and Eritreans. In 2019, the figure was around 5,000. Since August 2016, Somalia has been included, by the BAMF, on a list of countries of origin whose inhabitants have good prospects of remaining in Germany when claiming asylum. Previously the list had only included Eritrea, Iraq, Iran and Syria. According to data from 2016, more than 38,000 Somalis live in the Federal Republic of Germany.
Measures to stabilise Somalia
In recent decades, the international community has made expensive efforts to stabilize the war-torn country. The EU is supporting Somalia with €3.5 billion for the period 2015 to 2020, as jointly agreed within the 2013 Somali Compact, which includes not only development aid and economic development but also the establishment of security structures such as the national army.
In addition, the EU has earmarked a further 200 million euros for the period 2014 to 2020, including peace-building measures and economic promotion such as support for small businesses, run especially by women, and vocational training. In 2017, the EU gave a further €119 million for food security in the face of an acute drought. Currently, the EU contribution accounts for around 60 percent of all humanitarian emergency aid for Somalia.
Under the National Indicative Programme (NIP), Somalia receives €286 million from the EU Emergency Trust Fund (EUTF). Further funds are being allocated proportionately to Somalia within the framework of the regional Khartoum process as well as in support of the region-based Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union.
Since 2007, the AU has maintained the abovementioned stabilisation mission in Somalia, AMISOM, which is largely financed by the EU: Until today, the EU has spent more than 1.7 billion euros on the pay of Ugandan, Kenyan and Burundian AU soldiers and police officers. But in the course of setting up further EU military missions in Mali, Niger and the Central African Republic, the EU reduced its share by 20 percent at the beginning of 2016. Kenya and Uganda complained about outstanding payments to their soldiers in Somalia. Both countries threatened to withdraw from the mission in 2016. In the end, the EU pledged another 178 million dollars.
Already in 2010 had the EU established a training mission (EUTM) for the virtually non-existent army. Over 5,700 Somali soldiers and officers were trained by European military personnel, but not in Somalia itself. Due to the security situation, the Somali soldiers and officers were flown to Uganda, to be drilled by Europeans for months. Only after the security situation had improved in 2015 was the EUTM mission transferred to Mogadishu.
As part of the civilian EU mission EUCAP Nestor (Regional Maritime Capacity Building Mission in the Horn of Africa and the Western Indian Ocean), European instructors have been training the Somali coast guard in their fight against piracy since 2012.
In the maritime operation ATALANTA, European warships protect boats belonging to the World Food Programme (WFP), AMISOM and other actors against attacks by Somali pirates. As a result, the number of pirate kidnappings off the Somali coast has steadily decreased since 2011. The mission was extended by the EU Council in 2018 until 2020.
Refugees play an important role in the preparation of the elections. Their return would contribute to the democratisation and legitimisation of the government and thus to the stabilisation of the country. Even in the run-up to the last elections in early 2017, the returnees were key electoral players: “Keep in mind that your return is a sign of the revival of peace in Somalia and that you can make a difference for your country if you return home,” the then government spokesman addressed the more than 270,000 remaining Somali refugees in Kenya’s Dadaab camp while on a trip through the region. The refugee camps in the neighbouring country were decisive terrain for the election campaign at the time.
As early as 2013, Kenya’s and Somalia’s governments agreed to close the camps in Kenya in a trilateral agreement with the UN refugee agency UNHCR. This agreement set the deadline for voluntary return for the end of November 2016. Somalia and Kenya wanted to adhere to this date and accordingly increased the pressure on the refugees. UNHCR, on the other hand, insists on the international principle of voluntary return and does not expect the return to be completed until 2032.
In June 2016, Hassan Sheikh Mohammud became the first Somali president to visit the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. He promised his fellow countrymen: “We do not want you to return by force, without shelter, education and health care being available to you.” He did not say anything about who would pay for this. In fact in 2016, UNHCR did not even receive one third of the 150 million dollars budgeted for Somali refugee aid. The reception and accommodation of so many returnees in a short period of time would prove a Herculean task for a country that is almost completely destroyed after more than 20 years of war, explained Somalia’s government spokesman Daud Awais.
Nevertheless, deportations to Somalia are no longer taboo for the German federal government and the federal states. In June 2019, 200 rejected Somali asylum seekers from at least five different federal states were presented to Somali diplomats at the Foreigners’ Office in Kassel, according to the Kassel Regional Council. The aim was to establish their identity and issue travel documents.
According to the Hessian Refugee Council this is at least the second so-called embassy presentation for Somalis. Another one apparently took place at the end of 2018 in Eisenhüttenstadt, Brandenburg. According to a spokeswoman of Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU), there was a total of seven deportations to Somalia in 2018; four deportations took place in 2019. “There is no deportation stop for Somalia,” Seehofer’s spokesperson Lisa Häger summed up the issue.
Many asylum applications by Somalis – although they are persecuted in their home country – are thus rejected, while they are also increasingly called upon to leave Germany voluntarily. Moreover, ever since the so-called Geordnete-Rückkehr-Gesetz (Ordered Return Act) was passed in the summer of 2019, rejected Somali asylum seekers can be forced to “voluntarily” leave the country by means of social welfare cuts. At the same time, it remains a German absurdity that authorities do not normally recognise Somali documents.
Returnees: dependent on EU aid
The EU is considered the most important donor for the stabilisation of Somalia. Fighting the root causes of forced migration for a long time used to be the buzzword of the pertinent EU strategy, while the focus has now shifted toward supporting the returnees from Kenya. In Somalia, UNHCR has defined four “safe zones,” including the capital Mogadishu and the coastal town of Kismayo. UNHCR disburses 150 dollars and food rations for six months per person who wishes to return. In view of the projected shutdown of the camp and the payment of funds to refugees who are virtually destitute, this procedure does not meet the definition of “voluntary” and thus violates international law, says Victor Nyamori of Amnesty International in Kenya. There are more “push factors,” above all the fear of violent deportation, than “pull factors” such as the prospect of a better life at home.
Funds have also been pledged to Somalia from the EU’s Emergency Aid Trust Fund for Africa: The EU is transferring 50 million euros to UNHCR and IOM to ensure the reception and reintegration of returning refugees. Most of the returnees find their homes destroyed or occupied, and they are transferred to IDP camps that are now being set up by international NGOs. The EU is investing another 10 million euros in drought-affected northern Somalia to tackle the further root causes of forced migration.
The return of Somali refugees is thus of much relevance to Europe. For if large numbers of refugees return to the country from Kenya, the implied argument goes, European authorities will soon classify Somalia as safe country of origin.