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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.




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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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.
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