A first group of 76 Ethiopian refugees have voluntarily returned home from Kenya’s sprawling Kakuma camp this week. The U.N. refugee agency, which has organized this voluntary repatriation operation with the support of the U.N. Migration Agency, says it expects to help thousands more to return to the homes they fled many years ago.
The majority of refugees who have returned are from Ethiopia’s Somali region. Many have been living in exile for up to 12 years. The U.N. refugee agency reports more than half of those returning in this first transport were women and children, including some who have been born and reared in the Kakuma refugee camp.
UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo told VOA the refugees have fled persecution and instability in their country. But conditions have changed. She said an increasing number of Ethiopian refugees have been asking the agency for help to voluntarily return home. She noted that for the refugees being able to return home after years in exile is a momentous occasion
"It means that conditions have changed and that you are ready to go back home and return back to your country, to your communities. So, it is quite a big occasion. It is very significant. We know that there are many protracted refugee crises where many refugees do not have the chance to be able to return. So, this is something -- a very big milestone for these refugees.”
Mantoo added that the UNHCR expects to repatriate more than 4,000 other Ethiopian refugees from Kenya and 500 from Djibouti this year. She attributed the surge in the numbers of those wishing to return home voluntarily to recent reforms in Ethiopia, which have improved the human rights and political situation in the country.
The UNHCR is providing the returnees with travel money to get them back home after they arrive in Ethiopia. They also will receive cash assistance to help them reintegrate into their home communities.