PoC: Protection, displacement and return to Somalia – Whose responsibility, whose rights?

How do people find protection in a world that increasingly attempts to govern their movements – in particular those that cross international borders? This larger question inspired me to compare measures and understandings of protection for Somali refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). While I had not conducted research on the situation of Somali IDPs before, I have published extensively on the situation of Somalis in regional refugee camps – for example in the monograph Transnational Nomads and latest blog Finding protection from violent conflict and famine?

The current interest of a number of states in commencing the return of refugees to Somalia, as well as to relocate and return IDPs in urban areas in Mogadishu and Hargeisa, directly affects the protection of the individuals involved. The, arguably premature, focus on stabilization seems to be guided by a wish to claim success of international reconciliation efforts and a justification for returning large numbers of refugees and asylumseekers from places like Kenya and Sweden. Yet such pressure to return greatly runs the risk of destabilizing processes in Somalia while offering no guarantee that those being returned will find any kind of protection. Though it is unlikely that a country like Kenya is going to follow through statements that it will ‘relocate’ half a million refugees from Dadaab to IDP camps in ‘liberated’ areas, there is a much greater risk that funding for assistance in Dadaab will increasingly dry up, encouraging a ‘voluntary’ return from the camps. A number of these issues are also analyzed in a recent report entitled Hasty Repatriation.

As my recent fieldwork in Nairobi brought to light, attempts to govern mobility do not just take place through border control and immigration measures, but also through humanitarian policies and practices. The importance of such policies and practices is particularly visible in Somalia’s current ‘transitional phase’, characterized by an increased focus on return and a shift from an emergency approach to stabilization programming. This shift is accompanied by talks of relocating funding from Kenya, Somaliland and Puntland to South/Central Somalia, where insecurity is still rampant and the newly established government faces considerable challenges. PRIO’s collaborative partner, the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS), is conducting data collection in Mogadishu and Hargeisa to explore the implications in Somalia.

As humanitarian policies and practices affect protection and displacement, before flight as much as after, it is crucial to underscore that mobility remains one of the most efficient ways in which those affected by violent conflict can protect themselves. Consider Mohamed Shukri’s story. When I spoke with him in Nairobi, early 2009, he told me he was pressured by his family and friends to leave Mogadishu for many months, but stayed on until July 2008 when two of his close friends and colleagues were assassinated. He realized it was no longer safe for him either. Just like his friends, he had been very outspoken on human rights abuses by all parties involved in the conflict, and was likely to be targeted. He was able to leave Somalia and lived in Nairobi for a while – until he deemed it safe for him to return to Mogadishu.

Not only individuals like Mohamed, who because of their activities or individual characteristics are persecuted in their own country, protect themselves through fleeing. Civilians who get caught up in violent conflict and suffer its effects do the same. As Mohamed’s story shows, this is not necessarily a decision easily taken. Fleeing involves new security risks, while it forces people to leave behind what is dear to them. It also entails moving towards an uncertain future in exile without many of the resources to cope with that uncertainty. While in exile, return decisions are constantly considered and weighed against the security situation for the individual or family concerned, and other relevant factors.

Mohamed’s story highlights none of the practical difficulties of leaving a conflict zone, as he had the necessary contacts and money – now occupying a senior position in Somalia’s newly established government. Yet many who decide to move from an area or country in conflict face considerable obstacles, leading researchers to conclude that refugees are often stuck in situations of ‘involuntary immobility’. Warring factions restrict people’s mobility for strategic reasons, as al-Shabab has been doing in the areas it controlled. Governments in the region and beyond attempt to govern migration, concerned with large-scale movements from conflict areas and fearing various spill-over effects. As such, the question of how people find protection in a world where states play a role in governing mobility – through border control and immigration measures as well as through their humanitarian policies and practices – remains highly relevant. And the current situation in Somalia clearly highlights, this question needs to be addressed not just before and during flight, but also during displacement and upon return.