Somali refugee population in Horn of Africa passes one million, but exodus slows

Briefing Notes, 17 July 2012

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 17 July 2012, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Somalia's refugee exodus crossed a new threshold this past week, with more than a million people now having fled the country for the surrounding region, according to the latest UNHCR data. The most recent arrivals continue to cite insecurity and dwindling food resources as the main reasons for their flight.

Despite passing the one million mark, our data for the main arrival countries of Kenya and Ethiopia also shows lower but steady numbers of people leaving Somalia. In the first six months of 2012 some 30,000 refugee arrivals were registered in the region. The conflict and the worst drought in decades forced more than 137,000 Somalis to leave their homes during the first six months of last year. For the year as a whole some 294,000 refugees registered in camps in the surrounding region.

The situation in most of the southern and central part of Somalia remains fluid and unstable, though there appears to be relative calm is some areas. The drought has been less severe this year, yet the prospects for the harvest next month are poor. Many people struggle to cope, as livelihoods remain extremely fragile.

As part of the overall humanitarian effort, UNHCR alone has distributed aid to some than 177,000 displaced inside Somalia since January. Together with our partners we reached more than 526,000 displaced Somalis in need of assistance. Priority has been given to the border areas and Mogadishu as these areas receive newly displaced people who have travelled significant distances.

Somalia is also going through a complex if tentative period of transition. In less than six weeks the difficult and slow political transition is scheduled to move into a new and yet more critical stage. Before the end of August the country is expected to have a new constitution, a new parliament, and a new president and government.

UNHCR believes that humanitarian crises must ultimately be solved through political solutions. The next few months are an important stage in the search for solutions to the suffering that has afflicted Somalia for two decades. Somali people carry the primary responsibility for bringing peace and stability to their own country. We do note, however, that the international community has a significant responsibility to support Somalis in bringing about a positive outcome.

Somalia is one of the world's longest and worst refugee crises. In the past decade only two other conflicts the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq have forced more than a million people to flee their homes.

The pressure on communities hosting Somali refugees is massive as the Somali crisis continues to affect the entire Horn of Africa region and beyond. Neighbouring countries also need continued international support. In addition to the million refugees in surrounding countries, more than 1.3 million Somalis are internally displaced. This means that a third of Somalia's estimated 7.5 million population lives in forced displacement.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Nairobi, Somalia office, Andreas Needham,on mobile: +254 733 120 931
  • In Geneva: Andrej Mahecic on mobile +41 79 200 7617
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East Africans continue to flood into the Arabian Peninsula

Every month, thousands of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants from Somalia and Ethiopia cross the Gulf of Aden or the Red Sea to reach Yemen, fleeing drought, poverty, conflict or persecution. And although this year's numbers are, so far, lower than in 2012 - about 62,200 in the first 10 months compared to 88,533 for the same period last year - the Gulf of Aden remains one of the world's most travelled sea routes for irregular migration (asylum-seekers and migrants). UNHCR and its local partners monitor the coast to provide assistance to the new arrivals and transport them to reception centres. Those who make it to Yemen face many challenges and risks. The government regards Somalis as prima facie refugees and automatically grants them asylum, but other nationals such as the growing number of Ethiopians can face detention. Some of the Somalis make their own way to cities like Aden, but about 50 a day arrive at Kharaz Refugee Camp, which is located in the desert in southern Yemen. Photographer Jacob Zocherman recently visited the Yemen coast where arrivals land, and the camp where many end up.

East Africans continue to flood into the Arabian Peninsula

A Family of Somali Artists Continue to Create in Exile

During two decades of conflict and chaos in Somalia, Mohammed Ousman stayed in Mogadishu and taught art as others fled the country. But life became impossible after Al Shabaab militants killed his brother for continuing to practise art. Four of the man's nine children were also murdered. Mohammed closed his own "Picasso Art School" and married his brother's widow, in accordance with Somali custom. But without a job, the 57-year-old struggled to support two families and eventually this cost him his first family. Mohammed decided to leave, flying to Berbera in Somaliland in late 2011 and then crossing to Aw-Barre refugee camp in Ethiopia, where he joined his second wife and her five children. UNHCR transferred Mohammed and his family to Addis Ababa on protection grounds, and in the belief that he could make a living there from his art. But he's discovering that selling paintings and drawings can be tough - he relies on UNHCR support. The following images of the artist and his family were taken by UNHCR's Kisut Gebre Egziabher.

A Family of Somali Artists Continue to Create in Exile

Nansen Refugee Award Presentation Ceremony

More than 400 people attended the annual presentation in Geneva in October 1, 2012 of UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award. This year's inspirational winner from Somalia, Hawa Aden Mohamed, was unable to attend for health reasons, but she sent a video message. In the former refugee's absence, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presented the award and Nansen medal to her sister, Shukri Aden Mohamed.

The 63-year-old humanitarian, educator and women's rights advocate, widely known as "Mama" Hawa, was honoured for her extraordinary service - under extremely difficult conditions - on behalf of refugees and the internally displaced, mainly women and girls but also including boys.

Above all she has been recognized for her work - as founder and director of the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development in Somalia's Puntland region - in helping to empower thousands of displaced Somali women and girls, many of whom are victims of rape. The centre provides secondary education as well as life skills training.

The packed event also included an address by Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, co-winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, and a video tribute to Mama Hawa as well as performances from UNHCR Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador and classical singer, Barbara Hendricks, and up and coming Swiss musician Bastian Baker.

Nansen Refugee Award Presentation Ceremony

Ethiopia: Far From Home Play video

Ethiopia: Far From Home

Nyabuka Lam arrived in Pagak, Ethiopia in September after escaping armed men who shot her three children and husband back in her home country, South Sudan. After walking for 15 days to reach the safety of Pagak, she is now finally on a path to recovery.
Kenya: A Lifetime of WaitingPlay video

Kenya: A Lifetime of Waiting

Sarah was born and raised in Hagadera refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Now 21, she has become a wife and mother without ever setting foot outside the camp.
Canada: Light Years Ahead
Play video

Canada: Light Years Ahead

With help from the Government of Canada, lives of refugees in Chad and Ethiopia have been transformed through the Light Years Ahead project.