March 21, more than 90 people attended a Breakfast seminar “Return to Somalia, a New Era” jointly hosted by NCHS and PRIO’s Migration Research Group. Speakers were Abdi Aynte, executive director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS) , HIPS researcher Anab Ibrahim Nur and PRIO senior researcher Cindy Horst. HIPS is a recently established Somali think tank based in Mogadishu, and a collaborative research partner to NCHS on the Somali case study for the Protection of Civilians project. A recording of this event is available here.
Abdi Aynte explained that after more than 20 years of wars and widespread disorder, Somalia entered a new era of optimism during the last quarter of 2012. A UN-backed process culminated in the selection of 275 members of parliament, and a new leadership was subsequently elected. The capital Mogadishu is considerably safer than it was two years ago. The new government has extended its domain of control to a number of regions outside the capital, and business vibrancy and civil society activities are slowly but steadily returning to Somalia. Despite the progress, significant challenges remain. The Somali state is profoundly fragile, and the state of chronic contestation over political and resource control persists. The new government has yet to articulate a set of national policies on most crucial issues, and the nature of Somalia’s federal structure remains disputed.
In her presentation (available here, under related files to the left), Cindy Horst discussed protection, displacement and return to Somalia. Her main message was that considering the profoundly fragile state of the road towards stabilization in Somalia, it is very premature to return people there at the moment. Not only can their protection not be guaranteed, but ultimately, a large influx of “involuntary returnees” is likely to destabilize an already fragile situation in the country. Horst also argued that the increasing return visits and stays of Somali diaspora to places like Mogadishu cannot be used as an argument to force others back, as protection upon return depends on many different factors – not the least having a foreign passport that allows a quick exit again if the security situation turns bad. She expressed her concern over the shrinking protection space for refugees and IDPs worldwide – not just affecting those trying to find protection from violent conflict but also increasingly in the transitional phase towards stability.
Both speakers asked a number of critical questions relating to the issue of Repatriation and “Voluntary” Return: What will be the humanitarian implications as the Kenyan government attempts to repatriate more than half a million Somali refugees? Many Western countries have buffed up their repatriation programs, including repatriation of rejected asylum seekers and also potentially Somalis with a criminal record. What will be the plight of these civilians and what kind of protection is available for them once they get off the plane in Mogadishu? While the new Somali government has started to reach agreements with a number of countries offering conditionality packages (aid for return), can it deal with the impact of a large influx of people?
Three specific issues were highlighted in the discussion that followed the presentations. The first is the Contested Role of the Diaspora as Humanitarians and Leaders and the development of what has been termed ‘Diaspora Hate Syndrome’ in Mogadishu and other places. While the Diaspora has often played an important role in providing humanitarian aid for Somalis inside Somalia, the influx of a large number of Somali individuals carrying European, American or Australian passports who want “top jobs” in the reconstruction phase is currently generating tension on the ground.
The second concerned the proliferation of land disputes, which is becoming a topic of particular concern. As noted in a 2009 report by ODI on land, conflict and humanitarian action, “Land and property disputes tend to increase in the post-conflict period, particularly in the context of large-scale returns of displaced populations. If these issues are overlooked, they are likely to threaten the fragile stability of post-conflict transitions”. Hence, one of the most acute needs is for the government to re-establish some way of managing the increasing number of land disputes, sometimes fueled by individuals in control of old registries issuing deeds and titles.
Finally, the international humanitarian community, which has a less than impressive track record in Somalia must now face up to new challenges. As pointed out in a 2012 report by Refugees International: “With security in Mogadishu improving, international aid agencies should be able to increase their presence on the ground, allowing them to learn more about how these gatekeepers operate and to whom they are connected. With this increased knowledge and greater presence, the aid system in Mogadishu can become more open and accountable”.