Djibouti : refugees grasp security in their hands with new ID cards

News Stories, 25 August 2009

© UNHCR/K.Mahoney
A UNHCR officer shows a refugee his new laminated ID card in Ali Addeh Refugee Camp in Djibouti at the beginning of a landmark campaign to step up protection for all 10,000 refugees in the country.

ALI ADDEH REFUGEE CAMP, Djibouti, August 24 (UNHCR) After spending 18 of his 24 years in this refugee camp, Somali Mohamed Mahdi heaved a sigh or relief when he was handed an official laminated identity card for the first time.

"The ID card is very important for us," he said. "It is good for our own safety. I am not a Djiboutian citizen and when I go to town, I could be arrested by the police, just for being a refugee and not having an ID. This ID card will help protect me from being arrested."

The UN refugee agency launched a landmark operation earlier this month to enhance the protection of all refugees living in Djibouti. The first step was issuing identity cards to all refugees over 18 in Ali Addeh Camp, the first time plastic ID cards have been issued since the camp was founded more than 19 years ago in the southeast corner of the country near the mountainous borders with Ethiopia and Somaliland.

From early morning on the first day, lines formed outside the UNHCR office in the camp with refugees eager to get the new cards, which clearly show the logos of ONARS, the national Djiboutian refugee agency, as well as UNHCR.

"Security is the most important thing for us and if the police see the logos of ONARS and UNHCR on the cards, they won't arrest us," said Mohamed, who was only six years old when he arrived in Ali Addeh in 1991, fleeing war in his homeland.

Identity cards are a powerful protection tool for refugees to help provide enhanced security and increased access to services.

UNHCR Representative Ann Encontre

While Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali refugees generally enjoy freedom of movement to leave the camp, many refugees encounter security problems in the capital city. The ID cards are seen as a way to help refugees enjoy their rights guaranteed by the 1951 Refugee Convention, ratified by the government of Djibouti in 1977.

Until now, refugees in Djibouti have only been documented on the basis of renewable attestations with a short duration. As crackdowns against illegal migrants are on the rise in town, the refugees' ability to prove their identity with a card is paramount. Urban refugees will also get ID cards in September.

"The distribution of ID cards is a big step forward to ensure improved treatment of the 10,000 refugees in Djibouti," said UNHCR Representative Ann Encontre. "Identity cards are a powerful protection tool for refugees to help provide enhanced security and increased access to services."

At the same time, UNHCR and ONARS are also conducting training for the police and other officials on the new ID cards to ensure that the special protection status of registered refugees is respected.

Hassan Abdirahman, a 25-year-old refugee in Ali Addeh, was happy to get the new card, but not sure what it would do for him. "It's not clear if we can get a job with this card," he said.

In theory, refugees in Djibouti have the same right to work as nationals, but in reality refugees must buy work permits which are too expensive since refugees have no income.

"I hope the distribution of identity cards will pave the way towards the relaxation of rules which have prevented refugees in Djibouti from accessing their full social and economic rights, " said Encontre.

By Kathryn Mahoney
in Ali Addeh, Djibouti




UNHCR country pages

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


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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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