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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.

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Bonga camp is located in the troubled Gambella region of western Ethiopia. But it remains untouched by the ethnic conflicts that have torn nearby Gambella town and Fugnido camp in the last year.

For Bonga's 17,000 Sudanese refugees, life goes on despite rumblings in the region. Refugee children continue with school and play while their parents make ends meet by supplementing UNHCR assistance with self-reliance projects.

Cultural life is not forgotten, with tribal ceremonies by the Uduk majority. Other ethnic communities – Shuluks, Nubas and Equatorians – are welcome too, judging by how well hundreds of newcomers have settled in after their transfer from Fugnido camp in late 2002.

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden


In February 2005, one of the last groups of Somalilander refugees to leave Aisha refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia boarded a UNHCR convoy and headed home to Harrirad in North-west Somalia - the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. Two years ago Harrirad was a tiny, sleepy village with only 67 buildings, but today more than 1,000 people live there, nearly all of whom are former refugees rebuilding their lives.

As the refugees flow back into Somalia, UNHCR plans to close Aisha camp by the middle of the year. The few remaining refugees in Aisha - who come from southern Somalia - will most likely be moved to the last eastern camp, Kebribeyah, already home to more than 10,000 refugees who cannot go home to Mogadishu and other areas in southern Somalia because of continuing lawlessness there. So far refugees have been returning to only two areas of the country - Somaliland and Puntland in the north-east.


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