The leaders of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development regional grouping, meeting in Nairobi Saturday, agreed to facilitate the voluntary return of refugees and address the political and security situation in Somalia.
Eight leaders from eastern Africa met in Nairobi to discuss the situation of Somali refugees in the region.
The meeting was held two months before the planned Dadaab refugee camp closure by the Kenyan government.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta insists the refugee camp in the northeast part of his country is no longer just a sanctuary for refugees but is the scene of criminal and terror activities too.
“Instead Dadaab has become a protracted situation characterized by hopelessness that easily feeds environmental destructions, a conflict between refugees and host communities, insecurity, radicalization, criminality and also allows terrorist operatives to exploit for its operational efforts,” he said.
More than 200,000 refugees live in the Dadaab refugee camp. Close to a million Somalis are refugees in neighboring countries. Kenya hosts a third of those, and Ethiopia is home to a quarter of a million of Somalis.
The region is also facing a humanitarian crisis. More than 17 million are affected by drought and are in need of aid assistance.
The leaders said there was a need to respond to the humanitarian crisis to prevent new displacement of people.
Observers fear the current crisis may threaten the lives of refugees returning to Somalia where 6 million-half of the population is hungry.
The heads of the nations in the summit said that voluntary repatriation is not the only option and has urged other countries to come forward and share responsibility through settling some of the refugees in third countries.
Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed says his compatriots tell him the situation back at home has forced them to live in camps.
“Today 2.5 million Somalis refugees and IDPs live in camps in and out of the country. Tragically some have lived in the camps for three generations," he said. "All the environment was not conducive enough in Somalia for them to return.”
Mohamed says his government will call on the rest of the nations in the region to improve the security situation.
“We will increase our effort to jointly achieve the objectives of this conference on the voluntary return of our people, safe and dignified manner and to provide global solutions so that they can participate in the rebuilding of prosperous, and peaceful Somalia at peace and harmony with itself and neighbors,” he said.
Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti, Burundi and Ethiopia have sent troops to Somalia to support the government and fight Islamist militant group al-Shabab.
The UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for operations, George Obbo, creating a safe place for refugees will require a collective effort.
“Solutions for refugees and internal displaced are, however, fundamentally linked to resolving conflict, and building stability inside Somalia but these should not be pursued as sequential states rather we need to engage a range of tools and actors," he said. "To help build the conditions will allow those refugees who are ready to return home to do so voluntarily.”
The U.N.’s refugee agency is calling for a joint effort to mitigate the effect of drought and avert famine in the region to reduce the suffering of the population in Eastern Africa.