NAIROBI — Somali refugees at the Dadaab camps in northeast Kenya are voting in elections for local leaders this week. The voting is being held as Kenya's government pushes for the refugees to return to their homeland.
More than 160,000 Somali refugees in the refugee camps head to the polls this week to elect just over 1,000 local leaders who will represent them in their respective camps. The election is expected to end Thursday.
The candidates are competing for the positions of camp leaders, section leaders and block leaders in the five camps. The voters will elect one male and one female volunteer in each position.
The election is organized by Kenya’s department of refugee affairs, with the U.N. refugee agency and other humanitarian organizations providing assistance to ensure a smooth running of the process.
The UNHCR's Mans Nyberg says lines were long at the polls and 50 percent of the voters in one camp have already cast ballots.
Nyberg says a 50 percent total turnout is expected, compared to the 25 percent in the previous election in 2006. He says some of the election results in the camp show the voters want change.
“What is very good is that the leaders that were elected in Ifo II camp yesterday, most of them are new leaders, which means that they bring in new blood, new dynamics and new energy into the management of the camps," said Nyberg.
More than 400,000 Somali refugees live in the Dadaab refugee camps. The election organizers say the vote is one way of empowering refugees to manage their own affairs and ensure legitimacy of the leadership in the camps.
The elections were scheduled for 2011, but organizers postponed the process, after Somalia was hit by famine and hundreds of thousands of Somalis crossed into Kenya and entered the camps to receive aid assistance. The humanitarian agencies also say insecurity and kidnapping of their workers in the camps contributed to the postponement.
Nyberg says the election process will help refugees know how to vote and pick the leader of their choice without resorting to violence.
“Many, many of these refugees have never been voting in an election before because they fled from Somalia," said Nyberg. "Many of them, 100,000 of them arrived only two years ago during [the] 2011 emergency and they have been living in Somalia in a civil war with no possibility of experiencing any election. So this is a very good opportunity for them also to learn about democracy.”
Meanwhile, a meeting that was scheduled for this week in Nairobi between the Kenyan and Somali presidents to discuss the return of refugees to Somalia has been postponed to give the Somali government time to consult further on the repatriation of its citizens.