Don't forget us, say Ethiopians as last Somali convoy heads home

News Stories, 26 May 2005

© UNHCR/B.Heger
A Somali refugee turns for one last look at Aisha camp before boarding the bus that will take her home.

DEGAGO, Ethiopia, May 26 (UNHCR) Musse Abdi Jilal, a toothless village elder who claims to be 97 years old, remembers only too well what it was like in this desolate area before the UN refugee agency set up operations here to protect and care for Somali refugees.

"If we were ever sick, the closest place to get medical care was Aisha, 35 kilometres away," he says. "A donkey was the only way to get there, and it took one or two days to get to the doctor." Sometimes sick people died on the way.

Since 1989, when UNHCR opened the camp it called Aisha in the place the locals call Degago in eastern Ethiopia its health clinic has been serving the nomads who had lived in the area for centuries, as well as the thousands of Somali refugees they welcomed at the end of the 1980s. Musse was treated there as well.

"A couple of years ago I had an ear infection," he recalls, stroking his beard, henna-ed to a bright orange. "A doctor examined me and gave me medicine. I was happy because I got better. Not only me, but all the people from behind the hills," he adds with a sweep of his hands, "they got treated here too."

With the last convoy of Somalis set to leave Aisha camp on Saturday (May 28) to return home to Somaliland (north-western Somalia), the camp is to be closed by the end of June. The few dozen remaining Somalis who cannot yet go home to unsafe central and southern Somalia will be transferred to nearby Kebribeyah camp, where they will join 10,324 others. Kebribeyah is the last of nine camps set up 16 years ago to shelter Somalis who fled civil war and the overthrow of the Siad Barre regime.

© UNHCR/B.Heger
One of the last UNHCR convoys to leave Aisha camp in eastern Ethiopia.

Closure of Aisha camp "is a real milestone, very historic," says Fernando Protti, UNHCR's Deputy Representative in charge of operations in Ethiopia. "It's a great success that we have managed to help more than 600,000 Somalis go home, which is always what refugees prefer. Now, with the establishment of the transitional government for Somalia, there are hopes that the remaining few thousand can go home as well in the next few years."

But for the local community, closure of Aisha camp is no cause for celebration.

"Now the refugees are going," Musse complains. "They were assisting us. Now I wonder, what are we going to do?"

Life in Degago has always been tough. The very name is a reference to the harsh winds that whip the desert soil into huge funnels Degago means "cuts the ear" in the local dialect. The ethnic Somali people who live here were traditionally nomads, but were hit hard by repeated droughts in the 1980s.

"This camp has been a big benefit," says another community elder, Farah Darar, about 70, who adds that even his "grand-grandfathers" lived in this region. "Our livestock died in the drought," he says. "If they (the refugees and UNHCR) had not been around, we would not have lived. We became one family. We were eating the same food and living together. We were also working to earn money from the camp."

Unlike some places in the world where residents are antagonistic to refugees, the ethnic Somalis of remote eastern Ethiopia have been hospitable, in part because of clanship ties, and in part because of the benefits UNHCR and its partners brought to a region long neglected by the national government. (As one old man puts it, "the Ethiopian government? We had almost forgotten that we are its citizens.")

"I find Aisha a special community," says Protti. "It was the refugees who put them on the map. Before the refugees arrived, almost nobody knew about their existence. The local population is perfectly aware that cash has been coming to the area because of the refugees."

So it's only natural that they are asking UNHCR for help as the services they have depended on boreholes, health clinics and schools close down.

Local residents are distressed at the number of trees cut down by the refugees for houses and firewood, and UNHCR has allocated $50,000 for improvement of the environment around the camp, including reforestation.

Whenever it leaves any former refugee area, UNHCR also tries to encourage development agencies to move in, but Protti admits this is a long-term project.

In one of its most unusual projects anywhere in the world, UNHCR built special dams, reservoirs and 21 km of pipeline to supply water to Kebribeyah camp and local residents in the surrounding community. The refugee agency has been frustrated in its efforts to turn this multi-million-dollar Jarar Valley water infrastructure over to the Ethiopia's Somali Regional Government.

"We are disturbed by the government's inability to take over this infrastructure," says Protti. "Significant resources risk being abandoned because of the government's incapacity to take over. Many local people will suffer and it will not be our fault."

Degago resident Musse doesn't know details of projects like the Jarar Valley, but he understands UNHCR's departure only too well. Watching the refugees pack up for one of the last convoys to Somaliland, he turns to a UNHCR official and says with deep feeling: "This is my message don't forget us."

By Kitty McKinsey in Aisha camp, Ethiopia




UNHCR country pages


UNHCR works with the country of origin and host countries to help refugees return home.

Return to Swat Valley

Thousands of displaced Pakistanis board buses and trucks to return home, but many remain in camps for fear of being displaced again.

Thousands of families displaced by violence in north-west Pakistan's Swat Valley and surrounding areas are returning home under a government-sponsored repatriation programme. Most cited positive reports about the security situation in their home areas as well as the unbearable heat in the camps as key factors behind their decision to return. At the same time, many people are not yet ready to go back home. They worry about their safety and the lack of access to basic services and food back in Swat. Others, whose homes were destroyed during the conflict, are worried about finding accommodation. UNHCR continues to monitor people's willingness to return home while advocating for returns to take place in safety and dignity. The UN refugee agency will provide support for the transport of vulnerable people wishing to return, and continue to distribute relief items to the displaced while assessing the emergency shelter needs of returnees. More than 2 million people have been displaced since early May in north-west Pakistan. Some 260,000 found shelter in camps, but the vast majority have been staying with host families or in rented homes or school buildings.

Return to Swat Valley

UNHCR resumes return operation for 43,000 Angolans in DR Congo

The UN refugee agency has resumed a voluntary repatriation programme for Angolan refugees living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Some 43,000 Angolans have said they want to go back home under a project that was suspended four years ago for various reasons. A first group of 252 Angolan civilians left the UNHCR transit centre in the western DRC town of Kimpese on November 4, 2011 They crossed the border a few hours later and were warmly welcomed by officials and locals in Mbanza Congo. In the first two weeks of the repatriation operation, more than 1,000 Angolan refugees returned home from the DRC provinces of Bas-Congo in the west and Katanga in the south. Out of some 113,000 Angolan refugees living in neighbouring countries, 80,000 are hosted by the DRC.

UNHCR resumes return operation for 43,000 Angolans in DR Congo

Tanzanian refugees return to Zanzibar

The UN refugee agency has successfully completed the voluntary repatriation of 38 Tanzanian refugees from Zanzibar who had been residing in the Somalia capital, Mogadishu, for more than a decade. The group, comprising 12 families, was flown on two special UNHCR-chartered flights from Mogadishu to Zanzibar on July 6, 2012. From there, seven families were accompanied back to their home villages on Pemba Island, while five families opted to remain and restart their lives on the main Zanzibar island of Unguja. The heads of households were young men when they left Zanzibar in January 2001, fleeing riots and violence following the October 2000 elections there. They were among 2,000 refugees who fled from the Tanzanian island of Pemba. The remainder of the Tanzanian refugee community in Mogadishu, about 70 people, will wait and see how the situation unfolds for those who went back before making a final decision on their return.

Tanzanian refugees return to Zanzibar

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.
Nigeria: Back to schoolPlay video

Nigeria: Back to school

When gun-toting Boko Haram insurgents attacked villages in north-eastern Nigeria, thousands of children fled to safety. They now have years of lessons to catch up on as they return to schools, some of which now double as camps for internally displaced people or remain scarred by bullets.
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.