Polio fears in Ethiopian refugee camps

Briefing Notes, 24 January 2012

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 24 January 2012, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is very concerned at reports this week of two suspected poliomyelitis cases among Somali refugees at Dollo Ado's Bur Amino camp in Ethiopia, and three suspected cases from the surrounding host community. Polio is a highly infectious viral disease, which mainly affects young children.

In the five refugee camps in Dollo Ado we are working closely with the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, local government partners, WHO, UNICEF, MSF and other health partners to coordinate the response. The immediate priority is to confirm the outbreak, and samples have been collected and sent to Addis Ababa for laboratory confirmation. Once the strain of virus is identified, the appropriate vaccine will be dispatched to Dollo Ado for a mass vaccination campaign in the camps and surrounding communities.

In addition a nationwide anti-polio campaign in all zones of the country is scheduled to start on January 27th and will be expanded to include all refugee camps.

UNHCR and health agencies have also strengthened surveillance. At community level, mobilization and sensitization efforts have been stepped up to increase awareness of the signs and symptoms of polio and ways to prevent transmission. As the polio virus is transmitted through contaminated food and water, our partners providing water and sanitation are being engaged to ensure delivery of adequate services.

Some 143,000 Somalis are currently sheltered in five Ethiopian camps in Dollo Ado. More than 100,000 arrived in 2011 alone. After Dadaab in northeastern Kenya, Dollo Ado is now the second largest refugee settlement in the Horn of Africa. Almost a million Somalis live as refugees in the region while another 1.36 million are internally displaced.

For further information on these topics, please contact:

  • In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Kisut Gebre Egziabher, mobile +251 911 208 901
  • In Nairobi (UNHCR regional hub): Vivian Tan, mobile +254 735 337 608
  • In Geneva: Andrej Mahecic, mobile +41 79 200 7617
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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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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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