A young Somali's long journey to safety in South Africa

Telling the Human Story, 2 September 2010

© UNHCR/T.Ghelli
A young Somali man welcomes newly arrived asylum-seeker, Adam Osman Abdile (left), to the Mayfair neighbourhood of Johannesburg.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, September 2 (UNHCR) Earlier this year, 25-year-old Adam Osman Abdile received an ultimatum from Somalia's Al Shabaab: join the militia or die. He decided to flee to Kenya.

The journey nearly killed him, but it is one that many young men are willing to risk in Somalia and other countries in eastern Africa to escape persecution or violence. Their predicament, and that of other civilians on the move southwards from East Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region, will be the focus of a regional gathering in Dar Es Salaam on Monday and Tuesday.

Organized by the government of Tanzania, with support from UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the conference aims at reaching a fuller understanding of the nature, scale and reasons for south-bound mixed migration and to devise strategies on how to respond. Delegates from 12 countries will take part, including government officials and civil society workers.

Abdile's odyssey began in June, when he left his village in southern Somalia's Gedo region and headed towards the border with Kenya. His only luggage was a wad of cash in his pocket. He sneaked across near the Kenyan town of Mandera. That was the easy part.

During the arduous two-month journey, he spent time in prison, nearly suffocated hiding in the back of container trucks, suffered extreme hunger and thirst in the African bush and slipped past police checkpoints in his quest to find a safe haven where he could move around freely and work South Africa.

He often needed help en route, and that's where the bundle of money proved crucial. He handed over US$500 in total to various smugglers, or "guides," as Abdile described them.

He had a narrow escape in Zambia when police stopped the lorry that he and seven other people were hiding in. Abdile and two others dashed for the trees, but the others were arrested. Abdile and his companions spent four days walking through the bush before contacting a smuggler on a borrowed cell phone.

They crossed into Zimbabwe in the back of a truck carrying construction material. The smugglers left them at a river, which they crossed by boat before being taken into South Africa near the Beitbridge customs and immigration post.

"After I crossed into South Africa, I went to immigration and was given documentation allowing me to enter the country for 14 days. I felt enormous relief," Abdile told UNHCR, adding that he planned to apply for refugee status. "Throughout my journey, people were hostile, hostile, hostile and then when I got to South Africa, they were cooperative. They treated me like a person."

A few days ago, he took a minibus from the border town of Musina to Johannesburg and soon made contact with the vibrant Somali community in the suburb of Mayfair. Some of the residents have lived there for years and have permanent residence status or South African citizenship.

When new migrants arrive by minibus from the border, local Somali businessmen pay the fare as a welcoming gesture. "We have to, they are our brothers. They have suffered a lot," one Somali said, after Abdile's fare was paid.

Growing numbers of people, like Abdile, are travelling from their home countries to southern Africa, seeking to escape violence, persecution, drought or poverty, or, a combination of them all. The humanitarian crisis in Somalia, which has displaced hundreds of thousands of people this year, accounts for much of the movement in the region.

Meanwhile, refugees and migrants increasingly travel together, using the same routes and employing the same smugglers, making it difficult for governments to identify those who are in need of international protection. Increased security concerns also make the control of borders an urgent priority for most countries. Ensuring that these individuals receive the assistance that they need remains a significant challenge.

Abdile, who often thinks of his family back home, said his journey to safety had been emotional and scary. "We are not fleeing because of choice, but because of persecution. We are afraid in Somalia. Some of the people I was travelling with did not make it. They were imprisoned or died from hunger, or suffocation."

He also had a message for those taking part in next week's meeting in Dar Es Salaam. "All I am asking is please don't treat us so harshly. If a country cannot help us, then at least let us have safe passage through their territory."

By Tina Ghelli in Johannesburg, South Africa

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UNHCR country pages

Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action

A UNHCR strategy setting out key areas in which action is required to address the phenomenon of mixed and irregular movements of people. See also: Schematic representation of a profiling and referral mechanism in the context of addressing mixed migratory movements.

Mixed Migration

Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.

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

Somalia/Ethiopia

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.

Somalia/Ethiopia

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

Over the weekend, UNHCR with the help of the US military began an emergency airdrop of some 200 tonnes of relief supplies for thousands of refugees badly hit by massive flooding in the Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya.

In a spectacular sight, 16 tonnes of plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, tents and blankets, were dropped on each run from the C-130 transport plane onto a site cleared of animals and people. Refugees loaded the supplies on trucks to take to the camps.

Dadaab, a three-camp complex hosting some 160,000 refugees, mainly from Somalia, has been cut off from the world for a month by heavy rains that washed away the road connecting the remote camps to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Air transport is the only way to get supplies into the camps.

UNHCR has moved 7,000 refugees from Ifo camp, worst affected by the flooding, to Hagadera camp, some 20 km away. A further 7,000 refugees have been moved to higher ground at a new site, called Ifo 2.

Posted in December 2006

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