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




UNHCR country pages

East Africans continue to flood into the Arabian Peninsula

Every month, thousands of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants from Somalia and Ethiopia cross the Gulf of Aden or the Red Sea to reach Yemen, fleeing drought, poverty, conflict or persecution. And although this year's numbers are, so far, lower than in 2012 - about 62,200 in the first 10 months compared to 88,533 for the same period last year - the Gulf of Aden remains one of the world's most travelled sea routes for irregular migration (asylum-seekers and migrants). UNHCR and its local partners monitor the coast to provide assistance to the new arrivals and transport them to reception centres. Those who make it to Yemen face many challenges and risks. The government regards Somalis as prima facie refugees and automatically grants them asylum, but other nationals such as the growing number of Ethiopians can face detention. Some of the Somalis make their own way to cities like Aden, but about 50 a day arrive at Kharaz Refugee Camp, which is located in the desert in southern Yemen. Photographer Jacob Zocherman recently visited the Yemen coast where arrivals land, and the camp where many end up.

East Africans continue to flood into the Arabian Peninsula

A Family of Somali Artists Continue to Create in Exile

During two decades of conflict and chaos in Somalia, Mohammed Ousman stayed in Mogadishu and taught art as others fled the country. But life became impossible after Al Shabaab militants killed his brother for continuing to practise art. Four of the man's nine children were also murdered. Mohammed closed his own "Picasso Art School" and married his brother's widow, in accordance with Somali custom. But without a job, the 57-year-old struggled to support two families and eventually this cost him his first family. Mohammed decided to leave, flying to Berbera in Somaliland in late 2011 and then crossing to Aw-Barre refugee camp in Ethiopia, where he joined his second wife and her five children. UNHCR transferred Mohammed and his family to Addis Ababa on protection grounds, and in the belief that he could make a living there from his art. But he's discovering that selling paintings and drawings can be tough - he relies on UNHCR support. The following images of the artist and his family were taken by UNHCR's Kisut Gebre Egziabher.

A Family of Somali Artists Continue to Create in Exile

Nansen Refugee Award Presentation Ceremony

More than 400 people attended the annual presentation in Geneva in October 1, 2012 of UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award. This year's inspirational winner from Somalia, Hawa Aden Mohamed, was unable to attend for health reasons, but she sent a video message. In the former refugee's absence, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presented the award and Nansen medal to her sister, Shukri Aden Mohamed.

The 63-year-old humanitarian, educator and women's rights advocate, widely known as "Mama" Hawa, was honoured for her extraordinary service - under extremely difficult conditions - on behalf of refugees and the internally displaced, mainly women and girls but also including boys.

Above all she has been recognized for her work - as founder and director of the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development in Somalia's Puntland region - in helping to empower thousands of displaced Somali women and girls, many of whom are victims of rape. The centre provides secondary education as well as life skills training.

The packed event also included an address by Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, co-winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, and a video tribute to Mama Hawa as well as performances from UNHCR Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador and classical singer, Barbara Hendricks, and up and coming Swiss musician Bastian Baker.

Nansen Refugee Award Presentation Ceremony

Ethiopia: Education, A Refugee's Call to ServePlay video

Ethiopia: Education, A Refugee's Call to Serve

War forced Lim Bol Thong to flee South Sudan, putting his dreams of becoming a doctor on hold. As a refugee in the Kule camp in Gambella, Ethiopia, he has found another way to serve. Just 21 years old, Lim started teaching chemistry at the school's primary school and last year was promoted to Vice Principal.
Return to SomaliaPlay video

Return to Somalia

Ali and his family are ready to return to Somalia after living in Dadaab refugee camp for the past five years. We follow their journey from packing up their home in the camp to settling into their new life back in Somalia.
Ethiopia: Far From Home Play video

Ethiopia: Far From Home

Nyabuka Lam arrived in Pagak, Ethiopia in September after escaping armed men who shot her three children and husband back in her home country, South Sudan. After walking for 15 days to reach the safety of Pagak, she is now finally on a path to recovery.