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Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (Life in a refugee camp) - Environment: Preventing and repairing the damage

Refugees Magazine, 1 September 1996

The mitigation of environmental damage is one of the priority items in today's refugee situations. Donors recognize that moderate expenditure can save enormous cost in repairing damaged lands.

The Ethiopian camel and donkey drivers along the dirt road from Jijiga to Hartisheik have a common complaint against the Somali refugees: they have chopped down trees over a wide expanse of eastern Ethiopia's dry savannah.

"They are brothers," says Abdul Abdi Ali, 40, as he heads toward the market in the refugee town of Hartisheik to sell firewood loaded on the backs of his camels. "They have cut down our trees. But we have no personal problems with them."

Since the influx of the Somali refugees in 1988, the areas around their camps have been severely eroded. Now, both refugees and Ethiopians have to travel miles in search of wood for fuel and shelter. The long-term consequences are expected to be costly for the host community, which will bear the burden long after the Somalis are gone.

The situation in eastern Ethiopia is similar to the predicament experienced by other countries caring for large numbers of refugees shrinking forests, poaching in game parks, pollution of water resources and soil erosion.

Environmental damage as a result of refugees' presence has been a major UNHCR concern for years. But the need to address immediate survival needs in emergency refugee situations often overshadowed projects to ease ecological problems in the past.

Donors recognize that moderate expenditure on environmental protection can save enormous costs in rehabilitation of damaged lands after repatriation. For this reason, UNHCR has facilitated activities of its implementing partners to provide some Rwandan refugee camps in the Great Lakes with fuel wood; to distribute fuel-efficient stoves in nine countries, including Kenya, Malawi, Somalia, Uganda and Zimbabwe; and to set up tree-planting programmes in Malawi and Pakistan. The two reforestation programmes, started in the 1980s, have also provided refugees and host communities with jobs.

In 1995, UNHCR issued a policy paper calling for the prevention and mitigation of ecological damage and the integration of efficient measures to deal with it in all levels of refugee operations. The initiatives require the participation of both refugees and host communities. This year, UNHCR released "Environmental Guidelines" to implement the policy, proposing the deployment of experts in the field and the education of both refugees and their host communities on the need to protect their fragile surroundings. Increasing attention is being paid to environmental planning. UNHCR has developed an environmental database at its headquarters in Geneva to support its work worldwide, including such areas as Ethiopia.

The regions around the Somali refugee camps in eastern Ethiopia have always been fragile. Abdi Hashi Abdirahman, 38, who heads the South East Rangelands Project (SERP), says British colonizers had once attempted to make a large part of Hartisheik and its surroundings a game preserve, allowing only limited grazing. So, for years, the sparse vegetation and forest cover was protected.

"Then the refugees came and started to cut down trees and soon there was no forest left," said Abdirahman. "The locals also chopped trees and made charcoal to sell to the refugees."

Abdirahman's office, which is part of the Agriculture Ministry, is promoting tree planting to counteract the ecological damage in the country's eastern region. SERP is heavily funded by the African Development Bank. It has five seedling centres to which UNHCR has contributed $2 million to promote tree planting.

To ease pressure on scarce water sources, UNHCR has been constructing water catchment basins and wells. It is now laying down pipes to bring water from one of its main sources in the region, in the Jerer valley, for the Somali refugee camp at Kebri Beyah that also would benefit the Ethiopians.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (1996)

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Environment

How UNHCR and partners seek to minimize the environmental impact of refugee operations.

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.

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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.

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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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