Nearly 70,000 Somalis in the Dadaab refugee complex have indicated a willingness to return home soon, United Nations officials said on Monday.
That amounts to about one-quarter of the 284,000 individuals found to be living in the Dadaab camps in the course of a “verification exercise” that the UN refugee agency conducted in July and August.
These 70,000 Somalis had responded affirmatively when asked by UN census-takers if they want to return home soon, said Duke Mwancha, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency.
“This does not mean in any way that the remaining 75 per cent are not interested in returning,” Mr Mwancha cautioned.
He noted in an email message in response to Nation queries that the remaining 214,000 refugees “were not probed on their return intentions (when and how).”
The outcome of the Dadaab population survey also “does not mean that the 25 per cent will leave immediately,” Mr Mwancha added.
“Despite their open declaration in the population verification exercise, they will have to approach Return Help Desks in the camps where return-related information will be shared with them in detail.”
Depending on how and when Dadaab’s population is calculated, the Kenyan government may be on course to achieve its stated aim of reducing the number of refugees in the camp by half before the end of this year.
Prior to the start of the verification three months ago, the UN put Dadaab’s population at 341,574.
But the head count showed that 58,016 fewer persons were actually living in the camps.
Included in the reduced figure for Dadaab’s population are 40,454 persons found not to be genuine refugees and believed to be Kenyan citizens.
“There will be further investigations to be conducted on these individuals, and once their citizenship is confirmed, they will be removed from the refugee register,” Mr Mwancha said.
The UN and Kenyan government are working together to determine how to integrate these false refugees into communities outside Dadaab, he added.
“It is possible that the 58,016 difference in our updated population figures is as a result of spontaneous returns to Somalia,” Mr Mwancha said.
Asked how such a large number of people could leave Dadaab without being recorded by camp security personnel, Mr Mwancha said the Kenyan government is responsible for security arrangements at the camps.
Kenyan officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment concerning the apparent mass spontaneous exodus from Dadaab.
The UN says it has assisted about 30,000 Somalis in returning home since the start of the voluntary repatriation process nearly two years ago.
But the number of assisted returns has dropped sharply in the past month.
UN-facilitated returns by road have come to a halt since officials in the Jubbaland area of Somalia announced in late August that they would not process any more returnees from Dadaab until their concerns about service provision were addressed.
Only 12 regions of Somalia, most of them within Jubbaland, have been deemed by the UN to be safe destinations for refugees being repatriated from Dadaab.
Some 16,000 returnees from Dadaab, along with 40,000 internally displaced persons in Jubbaland, “don’t have all the necessary basic necessities any human being would require,” the Jubbaland administration said in a statement issued on Sunday.
“Basic health care, hygiene, shelter, adequate potable water all are scarce if not outright inaccessible.”
With road transport blocked, the UN has flown a small number of refugees from Dadaab to Mogadishu in the past month.
But those flights have also been suspended due to what Mr Mwancha called “a security emergency.”
He did not specify the nature of the emergency, but noted that it is not unprecedented.
“Usually, it does not take long before resumption occurs,” he said.