UNHCR chief visits Somalia, Djibouti to highlight plight of the displaced

News Stories, 7 December 2010

© UNHCR/ R. Russo
High Commissioner addresses group of Ethiopians about the dangers of embarking on the harrowing journey across the Gulf of Aden.

OBOCK, Djibouti, December 7 (UNHCR) A chance encounter last weekend in a Djibouti port with António Guterres, head of the UN refugee agency, may have saved the life of a 14-year-old Ethiopian called Ahmed.*

The teenager met the High Commissioner for Refugees as he waited in Obock for a smuggler's boat to take him and about 30 other hungry and tired Ethiopians across the choppy, dangerous waters of the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and hopes of a better life. Ahmed had walked through the desert for seven days to reach the port, a popular embarkation point for desperate people seeking to reach Yemen.

Guterres was in Obock as part of a trip to Djibouti and northern Somalia to raise awareness about the tens of thousands of Somalis and Ethiopians who risk their lives every year to cross from the Horn of Africa on crowded, rickety boats.

"I have a lot of understanding for what you are doing, but we are very, very worried," Guterres told the group of Ethiopians, who had been waiting two days for the smugglers to show up. "The journey is dangerous. Many people have perished and those who survive the crossing have suffered. Women are at risk [of being trafficked or raped]. If someone is afraid and wants to go back, we can help you to go back."

Clutching a jerry can and a plastic bag with a few belongings, Ahmed hesitantly stood up and declared, "I want to go back." Six more people followed his example, including two women and one other boy.

The remaining woman, Alima, 20, was not swayed. "When I left my country," she said, "I had a dream to go and work in Saudi Arabia and I am not going to give in." Her determination is typical of the people who risk their lives to cross the Gulf of Aden, be they Somalis fleeing violence in the south and centre of the country or Ethiopians in search of a better life.

But the High Commissioner was encouraged and left Obock convinced that more people would avoid taking to the high seas if they were better informed about the dangers and about the reality that awaited them in Yemen no lucrative employment for most, but life in a refugee camp or poorly paid jobs in the cities or prostitution.

So far this year, 30,000 people have boarded smugglers' boats at Obock, a fifth of them women. Survivors have told of horrendous abuse during the crossing, including beatings and people being forced into the water far from the shore.

While in Djibouti, Guterres also visited the UNHCR-run Ali Addeh camp, home to some 14,000 mostly Somali refugees, many of whom have lived there since the beginning of the Somalia conflict in 1991. The government and UNHCR are struggling to deliver a new water source and to provide better access to health and education facilities.

"Here, at least, the people feel safe and their basic needs are provided for, but we are currently unable to fully address their concerns," Guterres said. "How terrible it is for people to live 20 years in the middle of the desert with no place to go."

He said the best possible solution was to return home. UNHCR is exploring the possible voluntary return of refugees in the more stable north. They would be given livestock or other means to help establish livelihoods back home.

There are those, however, for whom return is not an option. UNHCR has put forwards the names of 1,400 refugees who meet the criteria for resettlement in third countries. Not all will be accepted, though Guterres called on countries in the developed world to increase their resettlement quotas.

The High Commissioner discussed a third solution, local integration, during a meeting with Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh. But while thanking the president for Djibouti's great generosity towards refugees, he acknowledged that the country's capacity to absorb even small numbers of refugees was very limited.

Guterres also visited the relatively stable northern Somali regions of Puntland and Somaliland, where he was able to see first hand the tough living conditions for tens of thousands of internally displaced people (IDP) from the south and centre.

The IDP camps Guterres visited in the Puntland towns of Galkayo and Bossaso are dusty, congested and bleak. Housing consists of rough shelters made from rags and UNHCR plastic sheeting. Clean water, health care and sanitation are scarce and IDPs resort to garbage collection or begging to feed their children.

"We are witnessing terrible suffering. Inadequate shelter, appalling hygienic conditions among the worst health indicators in the world," Guterres said. "This is a chronic, catastrophic humanitarian situation."

Halia Ali Mohamed, who fled Mogadishu with her seven children, lives in a small tent in the Buko Bacley settlement on the edge of Galkayo. "I am still traumatized. It is hard to get used to this place, this life," she told the UNHCR visitors.

During his meetings with local officials, Guterres proposed to provide better shelter, camp infrastructure planning, health care and livelihoods help. "We need to actively engage in human support for Somalis. We should pour our support and development assistance into those areas that have peace."

UNHCR and other organizations cannot work freely in the volatile south and centre, where many people remain in need of help. "Our ability to access people is limited by security risks. Our staff have to move everywhere with armed escorts," said Grace Mungwe, head of the UNHCR field office in Galkayo.

Some projects are making a difference. Housed within the UNHCR compound is a training centre for displaced girls, many of whom are victims of rape. Girls learn to read and write, then are taught tailoring. During the day they sew cloth sanitary kits, which are distributed in the camps. They earn US$70-US$80 a month.

Hawa Adan, who runs the centre, said rape was a growing problem, even inside the IDP settlements. "This practice is not ingrained in Somali society, but if communities, elders, the government don't put a stop to it, it becomes a culture," she said, adding: "Somalia never used to be like this."

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Melissa Fleming in Obock, Djibouti

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