Kenya promises not to force refugees home

President Uhuru Kenyatta (right) with UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres at State House, Nairobi. (Photo:PSCU)

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta promised Wednesday not to force refugees home, backtracking on a three-month deadline issued by his deputy that would have pushed hundreds of thousands back to war zones.

Kenya had threatened to send refugees home -- including closing the world's largest camp complex in Dadaab, where more than 360,000 Somali refugees live -- following last month's university massacre of 148 people in Garissa by Somalia's Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Shabaab insurgents.

"Kenya has been, and will continue, fulfilling its international obligations, but the sense of urgency to repatriate the refugees has been necessitated by the security threats facing Kenyans," a statement from the presidency read.

Kenyatta met UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) chief Antonio Guterres, who said the government had clarified returns would only be voluntary, as set out in an earlier three-way agreement between the UN, Kenya and Somalia.

"The government of Kenya has already clarified that return will take place within context of the tri-partite agreement for voluntary return," Guterres told reporters.

"The worst thing that might happen would be to send back a large number of people when conditions are not right -- who are then forced to come back, move to another country, or be recruited by extremist groups," he added.

Kenya is struggling to stop increased cross-border attacks by the Al Shabaab, even though it has thousands of troops fighting them in southern Somalia as part of an African Union force.

Following the Garissa attack, Vice President William Ruto said he hold told UNHCR to relocate refugees or "we shall relocate them ourselves."

The UN warned that such a move would have "extreme humanitarian and practical consequences" and would violate international law.

Guterres travels to the Somali capital Mogadishu on Thursday, to discuss efforts "to ensure that Somalia is ready for sustained return of refugees," before travelling onwards to Dadaab on Friday.

Somalia's UN-backed government has reclaimed control of most towns in recent years but much of the countryside remains under the sway of Al-Qaeda-aligned Al Shabaab insurgents, meaning many refugees feel it is unsafe to return.