Nairobi, Kenya - Kenyan politicians were calling for hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees to be sent back home even before the Westgate siege, when gunmen from a Somali-based rebel group slaughtered scores of shoppers during a four-day spectacle of terror.
Since the raid, Kenyan parliamentarians have called for a faster repatriation of the 472,000 Somali refugees currently hosted by Kenya. Somali refugees have ties with militants and their camps are training grounds for terrorists, they say.
But achieving the long-standing goal of ejecting Somali refugees is tricky business. Nairobi faces tension with the UN's refugee agency, human rights groups and the refugees themselves, many of whom are fearful of war and hardship back home.
"Somali refugees have adapted to the lives of Kenyan people. They have schools, they have lives, some have created businesses in the camps," said Ilhan Ina Jamhad, a 19-year-old student who was born and raised in Dadaab, a refugee complex in northeast Kenya.
"Somalia is still not at peace. Over there they are killing people endlessly so we can't go back."
Forcing them back to a country still wracked by widespread violence and insecurity ... could inflame further instability.
Investigators are scouring the burned and blood-spattered building for clues about the Westgate assailants, who killed more than 70 people. Al-Shabab says the attack was revenge for Kenya's military assault on the hardline group in Somalia that began in 2011.
Asman Kamama, a lawmaker who heads a committee on national security, said recently the "security of Kenyans comes first" and demanded the Dadaab refugee camp's closure. President Uhuru Kenyatta and his predecessor, Mwai Kibaki, both called for the repatriation of Somalis at global summits.
Mohammed Guyo, a Somalia expert at Kenya's foreign ministry, said the government is currently negotiating a deal with UNHCR and Mogadishu to "define how and when" refugees are returned. It will be signed on October 17, he told Al Jazeera.
But rights groups warn against sending Somalis packing. Although Mogadishu shows signs of progress, al-Shabab continues to launch deadly attacks in the capital and controls much of southern Somalia - home turf for most Kenya-hosted refugees.
"These camps are currently home to over 400,000 refugees, including many forced to flee to Kenya because of al-Shabab abuses," said Gerry Simpson from Human Rights Watch. "Forcing them back to a country still wracked by widespread violence and insecurity ... could inflame further instability."
While UNHCR praises Kenyan generosity, talks with Nairobi have been awkward and protracted. Kenya has pushed for a complete repatriation in as little as 18 months. UNHCR officials, meanwhile, are counting in years rather than months.
The UN agency wants to run pilot schemes in which refugees are monitored post-resettlement. It rejects proposals to close Kenya's camps and shunt refugees into new shelters across the border into Somalia's southern Jubaland region.
UNHCR aims to ask each refugee where they wish to be resettled and help with money, housing and jobs. The large number of refugees - combined with inter-clan rivalry and conflict in Somalia - will make for a complicated and lengthy process.
|Somali refugees line up for food at the Dadaab camp [AFP]
1.1 million IDPs
The agency says that although Kenya hosts most of the region's 998,000 Somalia refugees - there are already 1.1 million internally displaced people in Somalia, which has seen little but war, drought and mayhem since dictator Siad Barre was toppled in 1991.
Some 15,000 refugees have chosen to return from Kenya to Somalia this year, the UN says. Gossiping Dadaab residents speak of such perils as bandits and al-Shabab gunmen halting buses to intimidate passengers on journeys back home.
Any repatriation deal with Kenya must "ensure refugee returns take place in an organised and predictable manner when the time is right", a UNHCR spokesman said. The agency also hopes the talks "will not be affected by recent events in Nairobi".
Since the shopping mall siege, Kenyan leaders have organised interfaith prayers for victims and lauded East Africa's biggest economy as a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic nation - often using the post-Westgate unity slogan "We Are One".
But analysts reject links between refugees and al-Shabab. Abdirashid Hashi, deputy director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, warned against "scapegoating" Somalis. Abdullahi Halakhe described a "knee jerk reaction" by some Kenyan lawmakers.
"The al-Shabab fighters were clearly experienced and disciplined, suggesting they had spent recent years training and fighting in Somalia - not loitering in Kenyan refugee camps," said Matt Bryden, director of the think-tank Sahan Research. "Several of the fighters appear to have been members of al-Hijra - a home-grown, Kenyan extremist group made up mainly of non-Somalis."
Others say a rushed repatriation could indicate Kenyan indecisiveness. Ahmed Soliman, from the London-based think-tank Chatham House, said the "Westgate attack could delay rather than hasten" a refugee exodus.
"The siege was meant to demonstrate that al-Shabab retains the capacity to strike within and beyond Somalia's borders," he said. "President Kenyatta has vowed to stand alongside Somalia, as the international community has vowed to support Kenya. Kenyatta will not want to demonstrate weakened resolve, which is how a rushed repatriation could be interpreted."
Analysts also point to frailties in the one-year-old government in Mogadishu, which still depends on 17,700 African Union soldiers for security and barely commands any authority beyond the bullet-marked waterfront capital.
Hasty reparation will be disastrous because an influx of hundreds of thousands of returnees could place an unbearable burden on the nascent Somali institutions and may reverse the limited security gains made thus far.
"Hasty reparation will be disastrous because an influx of hundreds of thousands of returnees could place an unbearable burden on the nascent Somali institutions and may reverse the limited security gains made thus far," said Hashi.
Although Kenya, the UN and rights groups disagree on the timeline, there is a consensus that refugees should not remain refugees forever.
"Eventually, the Somali refugees will have to leave Kenya," said Halakhe, from the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. "But it will be complicated and I think repatriation should be tied to an overall new Somalia policy.
"Westgate should incentivise Kenya to take leadership in finding political solutions. Without a functioning central government, al-Shabab will remain a menace. An exclusively military posture cannot solve the security threat."
Others point to members of the Somali diaspora in Europe and North America who have observed security gains over recent months and returned to Mogadishu - often bringing much-needed skills and cash to open businesses.
"If it is done with appropriate planning and under the right circumstances, repatriation will assist Somali returnees to rebuild functional communities in their own country, to re-engage in economic recovery, and to live in peace and dignity in their own country - not the squalor and uncertainty of sprawling refugee complexes," said Bryden.