How refugees are being forced back to a war zone to repay their debts

‘What other choice do I have?’

How debt-ridden refugees are being forced to return to a war zone

Published on December 15, 2017


Her friends were rushing to say goodbye. They gathered in the sliver of shade outside her mud hut, next to the pile of bags packed with everything Khairo Hassan had accumulated as a refugee.

“I’m going to miss you,” said one woman, who kissed her cheeks.

“We hope you are safe there,” said a girl who hugged her, while Hassan’s eyes filled with tears.

In three days, Hassan, 44, would be leaving this sprawling refugee camp for Mogadishu, Somalia, one of the most dangerous cities on the planet, with two of her daughters and her granddaughter. She hated the idea. Every week, it seemed, Islamist extremists there grew more brazen. In October, a truck bomb had killed 512 people, one of the deadliest terrorist attacks anywhere since Sept. 11, 2001.

Hassan was traveling through a U.N. program called “voluntary repatriation,” which provides hundreds of dollars to refugees in Kenya who choose to go back home. But there was nothing voluntary about her journey to Somalia.

TOP: Khairo Hassan's daughters prepare to cook beans in their mud hut in Dagahaley, in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in northern Kenya. ABOVE LEFT: Hassan’s neighborhood in the sprawling refu­gee camp of 250,000 is seen from above. Hassan had left Somalia in 2010, after the Islamist group al-Shabab had seized control of her town, Dinsor. Her husband had been fatally shot in the street. ABOVE RIGHT: Hassan’s mud hut in the camp, on the left, is next to that of her eldest daughter, Sokoro Mohammed Isak, 28.

Instead, her return was a sign of how a strained international aid system has broken down amid the biggest global refu­gee crisis since World War II.

The problem started when the United Nations, squeezed by growing demands for aid, slashed food rations in this camp of 250,000. That left the refugees little option but to buy food on credit from local markets.

Hassan, a widow, had borrowed $400 over several months to purchase rice, beans, milk and noodles to feed her family. It was an impossible sum in the Dadaab camp, where she made $3 a month selling bananas. Her creditors began to threaten her with arrest or violence.

Unwittingly, the United Nations created the only viable mechanism for people like Hassan to pay off their debts: by moving to a war zone.

If everything went as planned, in three days, before Hassan boarded a plane to Mogadishu, a U.N. official would give her about $150 per family member for their return to Somalia. She would immediately hand that cash to her creditors.

“I need this debt to be over,” Hassan said.

Asked about the practice, the United Nations said it was aware that mounting debt could motivate some refugees to return to Somalia. But officials said they did not know how prevalent a factor it is.

“This is something we are looking into,” said Denis Kuindje, the head of protection at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Dadaab.

The United Nations’ voluntary repatriation program started offering the payments in 2016, after Kenyan authorities threatened to shutter Dadaab, one of the world’s oldest refu­gee camps. Some refugees began to pack up and head for neighboring Somalia, which has suffered near-continuous war since the early 1990s. The U.N. assistance was meant to help them get settled.

But Hassan would start her new life in Somalia with almost nothing.

Now, as more people trickled into Hassan’s hut to say goodbye, a man in a shiny red robe slid through the crowd, entered her room and sat on her bed, his leather shoes resting on her dirt floor. His name was Bashir Ali. He was one of the shopkeepers to whom Hassan owed money.

“When are you going to pay me?” he asked, twirling a large white smartphone in one hand.

Hassan was getting angry. The previous night, the radio had reported another attack in Mogadishu. Her 19-year-old son, Noor Mohammed Isak, who would be staying behind in Dadaab, had shown her pictures of dead bodies on his phone. Her head throbbed, and she wondered if she had malaria, or if it was stress.

“I told you I will,” she told the shopkeeper. “As soon as they give me the money, it will be yours.”

Women wait outside of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office in Dadaab. The United Nations unwittingly created the only viable mechanism for refugees to pay off their debts: by paying them to move to a war zone.

Packing to go

The next day, Hassan and the girls took the first step of their journey to Somalia.

Inside her hut, Hassan rolled up her thin mattress and tied it with a headscarf. She packed a Koran with gold lettering on the cover. Her daughter Falhado, 14, was surrounded by friends who hugged her.

“I hope she isn’t killed,” one friend, Sahro Hassan, 14, said after stepping away from Falhado.

The family crammed into a beat-up silver taxi, which drove off in a burst of dust. Hassan watched as her corner of the camp disappeared in the rearview mirror, heaps of sun-bleached wood, metal and plastic.

She had left Somalia in 2010, walking for 16 days, after the Islamist group al-Shabab had seized control of her town, Dinsor. Her husband had been shot and killed in the middle of the street. Her neighbor had been slaughtered in his house. One of her daughters had disappeared after an unhappy marriage, leaving her baby for Hassan to raise.

Hassan didn’t expect to stay long in Dadaab, a string of makeshift encampments in the desert of eastern Kenya, about 50 miles from the Somali border. But the situation back home never improved. Last year, al-Shabab was one of Africa’s deadliest terrorist organizations, killing more than 4,200 people. This year, because of conflict and drought, Somalia reached the brink of famine.

Now, Hassan was heading back, despite her friends’ warnings. There were few functional schools in Somalia, they said. Some of those who returned from Dadaab had been killed, they said.

Hassan listened and responded: “What other choice do I have?”

TOP: Khairo Hassan, 44, sits on her bed in her hut. Hassan, a widow who made $3 a month selling bananas, had borrowed $400 over several months to buy food for her family, and her creditors began to threaten her with arrest or violence. The mounting debt left her little choice but to return to Somalia. ABOVE LEFT: Hassan’s oldest daughter, Sokoro Mohammed Isak, wipes away tears as she sees her family get into a taxi that will take them to the airport for their flight to Somalia. ABOVE RIGHT: Women and children gather to send off Hassan, two of her daughters and her granddaughter.

The taxi took them to a bus, and the bus took them to a large concrete shelter in the camp where Hassan’s family and 27 other refugees were told to wait. They were almost all traveling to Somalia for the same reason — to use the U.N. stipend to pay off their debt.

Adey Ali, a single mother of two, owed $600, which she had spent on food and medicine for her children. Mohammed Usman owed $180. Another woman owed $250.

“This is debt-motivated repatriation,” Ali said.

Across Dadaab, the United Nations had posted signs that read, “Return is your choice.” Officials had set up information desks where families considering repatriation could ask questions and where U.N. officials could determine whether they were indeed going back voluntarily. It is a violation of international law to force refugees to return home if their lives will be at risk.

But U.N. fieldworkers are aware of how the financial package encourages refugees to return to Somalia. Hassan, Ali and several other returnees said they mentioned in their repatriation interviews that their debts were the primary reason they were participating in the program.

“We know it’s the money on their mind,” said Abdi Fatah Sadik, a senior repatriation officer with UNHCR in the camp, who is responsible for interviewing would-be returnees.

The United Nations also acknowledges the devastating effect of the decrease in food rations over the past year. U.N. officials say they instituted the cutbacks because donors such as the United States and European countries have not kept pace with surging demand for aid around the world.

Refugees in Dadaab now receive only 70 percent of their nutritional requirements, according to the U.N. World Food Program (WFP). Nearly all of that comes in the form of sorghum, an American government donation, which most Somalis do not eat. The result has been an increase in malnutrition, according to the WFP.

“We can’t pretend people will eat a lot less and remain at the same health level,” said Paul Turnbull, the agency’s deputy country director in Kenya.

To fill the gaps, refugees such as Hassan headed to Dadaab’s markets, run mostly by other refugees and stocked with produce and meat from outside the camp. As in Somalia, they can make purchases using a system of credit known as “deen,” based on trust between members of the same clans. Except, eventually, they hit their limits.

“The U.N. doesn’t give enough food, so they come here,” said one shopkeeper named Sheikh Hussein, who sells rice, milk and beans. “We know eventually they’ll find a way to pay.”

Ali, the single mother, said her creditors sent Kenyan police officers to her hut. She spent seven hours in jail until two clan leaders came to bail her out. But first they asked her: “How will you pay your debt?” she recalled.

“I told them, ‘There is only one way. I will enlist in repatriation,’ ” she said.

TOP: Hassan waits in line to receive her money at the airstrip in Dadaab. ABOVE LEFT: Posters explain the repatriation process inside of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office in Dadaab. Hassan was traveling through a U.N. program called “voluntary repatriation,” which provides hundreds of dollars to refugees in Kenya who choose to return home. But she was going back only out of desperation. ABOVE RIGHT: Hassan collects $630, which she used to pay her creditors just before she boarded the plane to Mogadishu. “I’m free now,” she said.

Hassan received a different threat. One of the three men to whom she owed money had confronted her a few months ago, she said.

“If you don’t pay me, there’s going to be a fight,” he told her. She signed up for repatriation shortly afterward.

At the concrete shelter, Hassan and the girls unrolled their mattresses and sprawled out in the heat. In a bag, Falhado had brought a notebook full of English homework, with the teacher’s comments in the margins. “Splendid,” one said. “Brilliant,” said another.

Shamso, 11, Hassan’s younger daughter, carried sandals that said, “Beautiful Girl.” Ladan, 12, her granddaughter, held a plastic bag that said, “See the World.”

After a few hours, they were taken to an office to provide fingerprints, sit for pictures and hand over their refu­gee cards. While Hassan was standing at a table, her cellphone rang. She fished it from her blue handbag.

“Hello,” she said.

It was another one of her creditors.

“I heard you are leaving soon,” he said.

Her eyes widened with anger.

“You will get your money,” she said.

The plane back home

The bus arrived the next morning, pink with a yellow bolt down the middle and stars painted on the windows. Their plane was on its way.

Before this week, Hassan had never been on a bus. Now, she was inside of one, bouncing along the dirt road that sliced through the camp.

She had never flown in a plane before, either. “What is to keep that metal box from crashing into the ocean?” she asked.

The bus came to a stop in front of Dadaab’s airstrip. Hassan and the other refugees walked down the steps.

Their bags were weighed. The family’s belongings came to 136 pounds.

“Stand over there,” a U.N. official said, indicating a small office, and the refugees lined up where they were told.

Inside, a man at a desk was sitting in front of a pile of white envelopes. Hassan’s name was called. The man reached into one envelope and pulled out $100 bills. He counted them out loud.

A woman hands money through a fence at the airstrip in Dadaab. U.N. officials had even allowed a money changer onto the airstrip, so that the refugees could pay their debts in the local currency.

“Six hundred and 30 dollars,” he announced at the end, and Hassan took the envelope from him.

“I’ve never seen this much money,” she said in a monotone, leaving the office. “I wish I could keep it.”

But her son and her 28-year-old daughter were staying in Dadaab. Most of the refugees had relatives remaining in the camp, and they would be hounded about the debt if it wasn’t paid.

About 100 yards away, Hassan could see a crowd of men at the fence along the airstrip.

She walked up to Adey Ali, the woman who owed $600.

“Should we ask if we can pay our creditors?” Hassan asked.

Ali approached the UNHCR official in charge, a young man named Mokhtar Abdullahi.

“Can we please pay our debts now?”

“Okay. One at a time,” he responded.

The U.N. officials knew what was going on; they had even allowed a money changer onto the airstrip, so that the refugees could pay their debts in the local currency.

Minutes later, the refugees were at the fence, slipping bills through the barbed wire.

“This is it,” Ali said, as she passed $400 to her sister, who would then pay the creditor.

Hassan pushed $200 to one of her creditor’s wives and then gave the rest to her 19-year-old son, who would pay off the remainder of the debt that evening.

“I’m free now,” she said, and lifted both hands in the air in mock triumph.

Seconds later, the plane landed in a roar.

“It’s like a dream,” Shamso yelled.

Hassan wiped sweat from her forehead, collected her things and walked toward the runway, waving at her relatives who were still standing by the fence.

“Take care of yourself,” she shouted to her son.

Hassan walked up the stairs and let a security officer pat her down. She chose a seat in the fifth row and leaned her forehead against the headrest in front of her. A flight attendant buckled her in.

Around her, some of the children started to wail.

“Don’t cry. Don’t cry,” said a U.N. airline official. “You’re going home.”

TOP: Hassan’s girls watch as their plane lands in Dadaab. ABOVE LEFT: Hassan boards the plane that will take her from Dadaab to Mogadishu. ABOVE RIGHT: Hassan sits on the plane that will take her to back to Mogadishu. She would start her new life in Somalia with almost nothing.

Back in danger

Three weeks later, back in Mogadishu, Hassan was staying at a red tin house on the edge of the city, in a sprawling displacement camp.

A nephew had helped her find a temporary room in the house. But she had run out of money, and she was getting ready to move again, this time to a tent made of sticks and plastic. It was far too dangerous to move back to Dinsor, her home town.

In Mogadishu, gunshots and small blasts echoed throughout the day and night. The girls were afraid to walk outside.

“They are not used to this kind of fighting,” Hassan said. “I don’t know if they will get over it.”

Shamso could barely sleep. The 11-year-old had nightmares in which animals chased her. When she woke up, she covered her head with a blanket.

“In Dadaab, we never heard gunshots,” she said.

Hassan was supposed to receive $800 from the United Nations upon arrival — $200 per family member — but for some reason, that money had not been sent. For at least six months, though, she would receive a small stipend to buy food.

She wondered what would happen after that money ran out, where their food would come from.

In Mogadishu, the returnees from the Dadaab camp had formed a committee to lobby the Somali government and the United Nations for more help.

“Coming back was a huge mistake,” said Abukar Mohammed, the spokesman for that committee. Like many other returnees, he was planning to go back to Dadaab.

For now, Hassan was still trying to imbue the lives of her daughters and granddaughter with some sense of normalcy. They ate together each morning. They took turns washing clothes. The girls were attending a temporary school with a placard outside that said, “Education for children affected by drought.”

In the classroom, which had a tin roof and no windows, the sound of gunfire punctuated the school day. Shamso recoiled when she heard the shots.

Asli Hassan, her teacher, tried to calm the students.

“I tell them, ‘It’s okay.’ I tell them, ‘It’s normal.’ ”

Hassan’s granddaughter, Ladan, right, walks to school with Hassan’s daughter Shamso, 11, in Mogadishu, where gunshots and small blasts echoed throughout the day and night. The girls “are not used to this kind of fighting,” Hassan said. “I don’t know if they will get over it.”

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