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East African bloc: Members to allow Somali refugees to work

Nairobi – East Africa’s regional bloc said on Saturday it gradually will allow the hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees sheltering in its countries to work and will include them in planning efforts.

It is a step forward for nations like Kenya, which hosts the world’s largest refugee camp and where refugees are not allowed to work, but it’s not enough, said an Amnesty International expert on refugees, Victor Nyamori.

“It must be backed up by concrete action,” he said. East African countries already are signatories of UN treaties that say refugees should be allowed to work but that has not been put into practice, he said. Only Uganda seems to have progressive legislation to let refugees work and settle, he said.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development summit on Somali refugees comes as Somalia again faces the threat of famine, with about half its estimated 12 million population threatened. Droughts and instability already have displaced more than 2 million Somalis in recent decades, with about 900 000 sheltering in regional countries.

Even as the region faces the prospect of a fresh wave of Somali refugees, there have been efforts to urge existing ones to return home.

Insecurity and other constraints

Saturday’s summit comes weeks after a court blocked Kenya’s plan to close the world’s largest refugee camp in May. The camp, Dadaab, shelters more than 200 000 Somalis.

Kenyan authorities say Dadaab has become a training ground for al-Shabaab extremists but hasn’t provided proof. The Somalia-based al-Shabab group has launched more than 100 attacks on Kenya as retribution after it sent troops to Somalia to fight the extremists.

The UN refugee agency has urged Kenya to look alternative means of settlement, while human rights groups have accused Kenya of pressuring the Somalis to return home.

“Countries hosting Somali refugees have to find alternative solutions for them locally, focusing on the socio-economic inclusion of refugees,” said George Okoth-Obbo, the UN refugee agency’s assistant high commissioner for operations.

Though voluntary returns to Somalia continue, insecurity and other constraints are restricting their number, he said.

The regional bloc on Saturday committed to finding alternative means of settling refugees, but it did not say when any changes would take effect.

East Africa also faces the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis in Uganda, where hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese have fled in recent months.

The regional bloc also includes Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan.

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