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"World's largest refugee camp" closes in Ethiopia

News Stories, 1 July 2004

© UNHCR/B.Press
Food distribution in Ethiopia's Hartisheik camp, which hosted more than 250,000 Somali refugees in the late 1980s.

HARTISHEIK CAMP, Ethiopia, July 1 (UNHCR) It was once the world's largest refugee camp, hosting a quarter million Somalis in a bustling pocket of eastern Ethiopia. Today, Hartisheik camp is deserted, sitting quietly in the semi-arid border area as its last inhabitants leave for home.

On Wednesday, the last UNHCR return convoy left Hartisheik camp with 719 Somali refugees, crossing the border into Hargeisa in north-western Somalia, also known as Somaliland. They are currently living in a transit centre in Hargeisa while the authorities work to find a site where they can settle permanently.

The closure of Hartisheik camp marks a milestone in the Somali repatriation movement that has seen a total of 230,147 refugees return home on UNHCR convoys since April 1997. Many others have gone back on their own.

Hartisheik was the site to which hundreds of thousands of Somalis flocked amid the collapse of the Siad Barre government in 1988 and clan warfare in the early 1990s. The first refugees arrived in appalling conditions; many died of exhaustion, hunger and lack of water. UNHCR mobilised emergency assistance in this remote region, setting up camps, digging wells and offering medical services.

At its peak, Hartisheik hosted more than 250,000 refugees, mostly from Gabiley and Hargeisa areas in north-western Somalia. The camp bustled with a busy market where people could find almost anything they needed, from imported clothes to jogging shoes, electronic appliances and auto spare parts.

© UNHCR/W.Stone
Commerce thrived in Hartisheik's bustling market.

With Wednesday's closure, UNHCR plans to hand over the camp's facilities to the district government in eastern Ethiopia. They include a dam, schools, community and health centres, prefabricated warehouses as well as UNHCR's office and residence.

Of the two Somali camps left in eastern Ethiopia, Aisha camp is continuing return convoys to north-western Somalia while Kebribeyah camp hosts mostly refugees from southern Somalia, where uncertain security conditions prevent them from going home in the near future. In all, the two camps host some 24,400 Somali refugees.

But challenges remain even for those refugees who have gone back to the relative safety of Somaliland. With high unemployment, illiteracy and infant mortality rates, the region is struggling to cope with the influx of returnees.

© UNHCR Jijiga
The last convoy leaving Hartisheik camp for Somaliland on June 30, 2004.

To help returnees settle back in their home areas, UNHCR provides them with a minimum assistance of a small travel grant, blankets, sleeping mats, cooking sets, tarpaulin, hygiene materials, and food rations from the World Food Programme.

The UN refugee agency is working with partners like the UN Development Programme, the International Labour Organisation and the Danish Refugee Council to make the best use of the limited resources available to help the returnees become self-sufficient.

UNHCR needs more than $5.7 million this year for its operations in Somalia. This is part of a $118 million joint appeal launched in February by UN agencies and non-governmental organisations working in the war-torn country.

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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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