Genocide in Somalia’s Jubba Valley and Somali Bantu Refugees in the U.S.
Published on: Apr 09, 2007

This argument is particularly acute for those who have fled from persecution directed specifically against them. Since the 1950s, governments and international organizations have promoted voluntary repatriation as the preferred option for refugees. Permanent asylum in the receiving country or third-country resettlement has been regarded as second best. Since the 1980s, refugee law and practice have shifted so that asylum seekers (especially in Africa and Asia) are no longer assessed on their individual “well-founded fear of persecution”—the language of the 1951 refugee convention—but are seen instead as members of collectivities that have fled conflict or hardship and can be returned en masse when conditions have returned to normal. The blurring of the distinction between economic and political refugees has enabled a policy orientation toward repatriation rather than resettlement.

But for those who have fled genocide, repatriation often sounds like a terrible option. So it was for the Somali Bantus. Many, many Somali Bantus died because they repatriated under the assumption that UN and U.S. peacekeeping would bring security. Instead, the opposite happened. The U.S.-UN intervention in Somalia in 1993-4 did not successfully establish peace, security, or a functioning government. Rather, Somali Bantu refugees claim the U.S.-UN intervention heightened insecurity in the valley as militants were pushed out of areas secured by the intervention. Hoping the intervention would bring peace, the UNHCR sponsored repatriation trips, the BBC radio broadcast promising reports of peace, and ethnic Somalis encouraged Bantu farmers to return to rebuild the country. Those who did so returned to an upward spiral of violence and retribution, to death for many, to a much more difficult and life threatening second flight through the harsh desert to Kenya for others, and to a much longer wait in the refugee camps for a resolution to their homelessness. The U.S.-UN intervention did not bring long term security to the Somali Bantu farmers of the Jubba Valley.

Refugees from genocidal persecution often remain unconvinced that the political and social structures that produced a war and defined them as undesirable citizens targeted for murder can be unequivocally dismantled, even by international peacekeepers, even by international interventions to foster reconciliation. What it took for Somali Bantu farmers to abandon their land and flee through the desert, hiding from bandits, watching family members die of thirst and starvation, trying to protect their women from rape and abduction, is a very clear indication that, in their eyes, nothing could be worse than staying in Somalia. And nothing has changed in Somalia that would make it safe for them to return.

Thus the only response can be to develop a much more efficient system of relocation and resettlement for those targeted by genocidal acts. Currently, humanitarian aid workers complain that humanitarian aid is all-too-often hijacked by political agendas, where aid is linked to conflict resolution or mediation. Refugees who, as a population, have been specifically targeted for assault and murder must be treated as a humanitarian disaster and the world’s response to them must be delinked from a response to the political context that caused them to flee.

It is clear that the U.S. needs to dramatically expand its refugee resettlement program, particularly for those fleeing a well-founded fear of genocidal persecution. The war in Iraq has produced about 2 million refugees. The U.S. has accepted 500 of them. There are somewhere around 20 million refugees displaced from their countries of origin in the world today. The United States has an annual refugee admissions quota of 70,000, a number we haven’t even come close to accepting in the past 6 years. This is morally reprehensible and in the long term will contribute far more to global insecurity than it will guarantee domestic security. People fear that opening up our borders to refugees might let in terrorists. But refugee camps may be great training grounds for terrorists. A safe world is one in which no one has to live for years on end in the betwixt and between of horror and uncertainty in a refugee camp.

Another prominent response on the part of the international community about how to deal with the aftermath of war is to encourage and fund attempts at reconciliation between the warring parties. Ever since South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the idea of facilitating reconciliation among warring groups has caught on in the human rights arena and among international humanitarian organizations as a wonderful idea. It is a wonderful idea that you should make up after a fight. But, when it wasn’t a fair fight—when the fight was waged by clearly defined oppressors against clearly defined victims, when global actors hid their involvement or their political agenda for supporting one side against the other—whose interests are served by reconciliation? Victims, who have lost everything, often don’t want anything to do with their former oppressors and quite legitimately mistrust the intentions of those with whom they are supposed to reconcile.

Somali Bantus in the U.S. are desperate for security and stability, they are avidly pursuing language and literacy classes, education, employment, skills training, and community building initiatives, and they are frantic and traumatized about the loved ones they left behind in the refugee camps and the Jubba Valley. Most are utterly uninterested in reconciliation, which in any event they only believe will be achieved once they have gained material and educational equality with their oppressors. These are much more immediate, important, community building, and self sustaining goals, far worthier of international investment than reconciliation efforts and certainly than continued war-making in Somalia.