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UNHCR hopes to close Somali refugee camp at Hartisheik by year-end

News Stories, 23 October 2003

© UNHCR/L.Taylor
Somali children attending school in Hartisheik are preparing to start a new life on their return home to Somalia.

HARTISHEIK, Ethiopia, Oct 23 (UNHCR) A convoy of 205 Somalis set out for north-western Somalia today under a voluntary repatriation programme the UN refugee agency hopes to complete by year-end, bringing to a close one of world's most tragic refugee cases.

Following the collapse of the Siad Barre government in Somalia in 1988 in the face of a separatist rebellion, some 600,000 Somalis swept in appalling conditions into Hartisheik in a semi-arid region. Many died of exhaustion, hunger and lack of water. Relief workers at that time said the Somalis were dying like flies upon reaching Ethiopia.

The UN refugee agency mobilized emergency assistance in the inhospitable region and soon managed to put order in Hartisheik, setting up camps, digging wells and offering medical services.

The influx of refugees continued through the early 1990s, when clan wars led to anarchy in the country and the total collapse of the government in Mogadishu.

Today's convoy headed for Burao and Berbera, north-east of the capital, Hargeisa, where local authorities are attempting to lay out the welcome mat, but are hobbled by lack of resources.

Many of the remaining Somalis in Hartisheik have turned in their ration cards in exchange for a repatriation grant of 320 Birr ($40) and food supplies in readiness for their return home.

At its peak, Hartisheik was a bustling camp with a busy market where people could find almost anything they needed: imported clothes, jogging shoes, radios and televisions, auto spare parts and the ubiquitous khat a stimulant from the Catha Edulis plant that grows abundantly in the nearby fields.

Most of the goods in the market were smuggled into Hartisheik, primarily from the Somali ports of Berbera and Bossaso. They were bought by bargain hunters on either side of the Ethiopia-Somalia border. Buyers from the Ethiopian side came as far away as the capital, Addis Ababa, a day-long trip overland.

One of the major problems in Hartisheik and its adjacent camps has been a lack of water. Water supplies that were brought in by tankers several kilometres away did not adequately meet the needs of refugees. The semi-desert region does not have any groundwater supplies in the rainy season the porous soil sucks up all the rain water, and during hot and dry months the sun bakes the earth until it cracks.

Over the years, UNHCR has organised repatriation of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Hartisheik and other camps in Ethiopia to Somalia. Many other Somali refugees have also returned home on their own.

Hartisheik, which once held the record of being the largest refugee camp in the world, is now nothing more than small clusters of rugged huts close to the Ethiopian border.

Apart from the 1,700 refugees who wish to return to Hargeisa, some 600 refugees who may be from southern parts of Somalia that are not yet safe for return will be interviewed in November before being transferred to other sites in Ethiopia.




UNHCR country pages

Environmental concerns during refugee operations

UNHCR recognises three main phases of assistance to refugees - "emergency", "care and maintenance" and "durable solutions" - each of which requires specific attention. Environmental pressures too will differ between these stages, as well as from one situation to another.

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

Over the weekend, UNHCR with the help of the US military began an emergency airdrop of some 200 tonnes of relief supplies for thousands of refugees badly hit by massive flooding in the Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya.

In a spectacular sight, 16 tonnes of plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, tents and blankets, were dropped on each run from the C-130 transport plane onto a site cleared of animals and people. Refugees loaded the supplies on trucks to take to the camps.

Dadaab, a three-camp complex hosting some 160,000 refugees, mainly from Somalia, has been cut off from the world for a month by heavy rains that washed away the road connecting the remote camps to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Air transport is the only way to get supplies into the camps.

UNHCR has moved 7,000 refugees from Ifo camp, worst affected by the flooding, to Hagadera camp, some 20 km away. A further 7,000 refugees have been moved to higher ground at a new site, called Ifo 2.

Posted in December 2006

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

New Arrivals in Yemen

During one six-day period at the end of March, more than 1,100 Somalis and Ethiopians arrived on the shores of Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden on smuggler's boats from Bosaso, Somalia. At least 28 people died during these recent voyages – from asphyxiation, beating or drowning – and many were badly injured by the smugglers. Others suffered skin problems as a result of prolonged contact with sea water, human waste, diesel oil and other chemicals.

During a recent visit to Yemen, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller pledged to further raise the profile of the situation, to appeal for additional funding and international action to help Yemen, and to develop projects that will improve the living conditions and self sufficiency of the refugees in Yemen.

Since January 2006, Yemen has received nearly 30,000 people from Somalia, Ethiopia and other places, while more than 500 people have died during the sea crossing and at least 300 remain missing. UNHCR provides assistance, care and housing to more than 100,000 refugees already in Yemen.

New Arrivals in Yemen

The Gulf of Aden: Sharp Rise in Crossings and Deaths

The number of people arriving on the coast of Yemen after being smuggled across the treacherous Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa has more than doubled this year. So far this year, more than 18,000 people have arrived in Yemen across the Gulf of Aden, and nearly 400 have died attempting the journey.

This surge in arrivals is largely due to the continuing conflict in Somalia and the use of new smuggling routes from Somalia to Yemen and across the Red Sea from Djibouti. Many of the new arrivals also tell of crop losses due to drought, which forced them to leave home. This photo set focuses on those people leaving from Djibouti.

UNHCR has been calling for increased action to save lives in the Gulf of Aden and other waters. We have stepped up our work in Yemen under a US$17 million operation that includes extra staff, provision of additional shelter and assistance, and protection for refugees and internally displaced people.

Posted on 20 May 2008

The Gulf of Aden: Sharp Rise in Crossings and Deaths

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