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The Big Question: How easy is it for refugees to return home?

Updated Monday 21st March 2005

The end of the civil war in Somalialand means refugees could start returning home - but it's not that simple.

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Refugees climb aboard the bus that will take them home Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Today more than 17 million people live as refugees around the world - driven from their homes by conflicts, political persecution, famine and natural disasters.

Many have fled with nothing and have to rely on aid to survive, sometimes for years. Some create new lives for themselves abroad, but others keep counting the days until they can go home.

So how do they know when it's time to go back? The Big Question: How easy is it for refugees to return home?

It's early Monday morning and still dark. Five hundred excited people are gathered at Aisha refugee camp. They are getting ready to board the buses and trucks that will take them back to the areas they fled from, in the self declared republic of Somaliland.

Emma meets Amina Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission "We've lived here for more than 14 years," says Amina, a midwife and the chairwoman of one of the camp's committees. "It's peaceful and we've got everything we need here, but now I'm willing to go home."

Almost 1 million people left Somalia in the late 1980's and early 1990's, because of the Somalian civil war that left some 50,000 people dead. Somaliland declared independence in 1991 and for the past decade people have been returning.

"There is peace at home, that's the main thing," says Sophia, who's going back with her husband and four children after 14 years in the camp.

It's the refugees who decide when to go, says Robert Larsson of UNHCR, who's supervising the convoy. "Members of the refugee community have actually travelled back to their places of origin. They return to the camp and inform the others about the situation, to enable the refugees to make a decision based on correct information."

Robert Larsson Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Aisha camp was set up in 1989 and, at its biggest, housed 16,000 people - it was part of the largest complex of refugee camps in the world that was home to half a million people. Today, it looks more like a village, with shops, restaurants, a school and a health centre. But the refugees are not allowed to find a job in Ethiopia, and depend on assistance for all their needs. So, how are they going to live, once they leave the camp?

Collecting water Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission "It's going to be very difficult for me. I have been fully dependent on relief assistance and hand-outs," says Hawa, a widow in her 60s who looks after six young children. She won't be able to find a job, she says, and life will get harder once she's back in Somaliland. But she is in no doubt about her decision. "It's much better for me to return to my area of origin. I'd prefer to starve there, where everybody knows me, than to be left behind in the camp".

Hawa Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Hawa is counting on the Somaliland government to help her out. But it is still trying to rebuild the country devastated by the war and is struggling to cope with the returning refugees. Eighty percent of people in Somaliland are unemployed and there is no money for schooling or health care.

"Now it's the right time for me to start from the very beginning and become self-sufficient," says Sophia, who's in her 30s. Her husband, Mohammed agrees, "I'm not scared. It's my country, my parents grew up there, my grandparents grew up there."

Children celebrate the return home Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission To help them start rebuild this new life, UN agencies provide food that will last them nine months , plastic sheets, a cooking stove and blankets. "We also provide them with a travel cash grant of US$40," says Robert Larsson. "That should cover the costs from when they have dismantled their huts until they build them again on the other side."

"I'm going to rebuild my house back in Somaliland," says Sophia. "And I'm going to use whatever is left to open a small business, to guarantee some income."

And nothing is being left behind in Aisha camp. Sophia's husband, Mohammed, is taking the roof of their small brick house apart: "I'm taking the window frames, door frames, some wood... We know it's going to be difficult on the other side."

Preparing to leave the camps Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission So, how easy will it be for these refugees to build new lives in Somaliland? How easy will be for them to stay? That's next week's Big Question, from Somaliland.

This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 19th March 2005

 

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