NAIROBI — Tens of thousands of Somali refugees have returned home as security in their homeland has improved, the United Nations said on Wednesday, saying it would support a further 60,000 refugees who are ready to go back.
The number of refugees from Somalia - 1.1 million - is third to those from Afghanistan and Syria. Around half of them live in squalid, overcrowded camps in neighboring Kenya's arid north.
Kenya is keen to repatriate them because it believes that militants have used refugee camps as bases to launch attacks since it sent soldiers to Somalia in 2011 to drive out Islamist rebels linked to al-Qaida.
Alongside other African troops, the military push drove the al-Shabab group out of major centers, although it still controls swaths of countryside.
At least 20,000 Somalis have returned from neighboring countries this year, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said, although it warned that some returns may be temporary. The UNHCR has also helped more than 16,000 internally displaced Somalis get home this year.
“This is a moment of hope for Somalia,” UNHCR head Antonio Guterres said. “Tens of thousands have indeed spontaneously returned to Somalia. And this is something we cannot ignore and this is something that requires from us an adequate response.”
Somalia is attempting to rebuild after two decades of civil war and lawlessness, backed by international aid aimed at preventing it becoming a haven for al-Qaida-style militants.
In a meeting on Wednesday with Kenya's minister of interior, Guterres proposed a phased repatriation plan, starting with support to an estimated 60,000 spontaneous returnees followed by a pilot project assisting group returns to safe areas.
“We came to a very clear, common understanding of the way to go forward in relation to Somali refugees,” he said.
There was an outcry in December when the Kenyan government announced plans to forcibly relocate some 100,000 refugees living in urban areas to camps. The High Court blocked the move.
The Kenyan government is organizing an international conference in August to discuss Somali refugee repatriation.
The country plays host to the world's largest refugee camp, Dadaab, with a population of 430,000 people, down from a peak of 540,000 in 2011 when there was an influx of Somalis fleeing famine conditions.
Most refugees come from south central Somalia, where security remains fragile.
“Conditions are not yet safe for a rushed, large-scale repatriation,” UNHCR said in a statement, adding that Jubaland, where Kenyan forces are fighting Islamic militants, is tense and that humanitarian agencies are unable to deliver aid there.