Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (IDPs) - Out of sight, out of mind

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1996

The number of internally displaced persons in the Horn of Africa could be as high as 5 million some 4 million of them in Sudan alone.

By Peter Kessler

In early 1992, the civil war in Sudan produced a tragic, new group of refugees who for a time, at least focused international attention on the victims of conflict in the Horn of Africa. Some 12,500 young Sudanese boys, many of them kidnapped from their families and forced to join a rag-tag children's army, sought refuge in Kenya after wandering for five terrifying years across Sudan and Ethiopia.

Today, four years after their arrival in Kenya, the plight of these boys and the hundreds of thousands of other refugees and internally displaced people in Horn of Africa is all but forgotten. But they are still there, just some of the millions of people forced from their homes by conflict, internal political strife and the effects of drought.

The largest number of IDPs is in Sudan, created by that country's civil war, which reignited in 1982. The U.S. Committee for Refugees puts the number of displaced persons in Sudan at between 3.5 and 4 million people, most of them living desperately on the edge of disaster.

Depending upon which estimates are used, IDPs in the countries of the Horn could number up to another 1 million persons, mainly in Somalia.

In Sudan, a country at war with itself even before its independence in 1956, many saw disaster looming long ago. In 1988, the late James Grant, Executive Director of UNICEF, began shuttle negotiations first with the government in Khartoum and then with the rebel leaders in the south, which finally brought agreements for a cross-border relief operation. Kenya became the focus of the cross-border effort for the south, while another assistance programme was started out of Khartoum, to assist war-affected populations with food and other urgently needed medical supplies.

Relief aid to the people of Sudan is now overseen by Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), a joint UNICEF/World Food Programme (WFP) initiative. But despite its five-year existence, relief activities in Sudan are a stop-gap initiative, barely staving off the effects of war and collapse of the local economy.

WFP currently targets some 61,000 metric tons of food aid to more than 2 million people Sudanese who, according to OLS, will find it difficult or impossible to survive during the upcoming "hungry months" from April to August.

Philip O'Brien, who recently stepped-down as Coordinator of OLS' southern sector, warns that Sudan's civil war, and particularly internecine fighting among rival rebel armies, has destroyed local grain stores and forced people from their traditional grazing and fishing grounds.

As the latest stage of Sudan's conflict enters its 14th year, there has also been an alarming trend of abductions of relief workers and hostage-taking, OLS reports. Over 1995, nearly 40 aid workers were taken hostage in three separate incidents, and OLS was forced to conduct more than 40 emergency evacuations of relief workers from locations in southern Sudan.

More than 35 international and Sudanese non-governmental organizations now work under the OLS umbrella, fielding some 200 aid workers inside southern Sudan, with more based out of the capital, Khartoum.

Security for U.N. and NGO workers is a prime concern for OLS staff, the same problem faced by UNHCR and other agencies in nearby Somalia, where UNHCR has run a cross-border operation from Kenya since 1992, while also maintaining a permanent presence in Hargeisa, north-west Somalia.

"We don't lack a capacity to do programmes," said O'Brien, who now heads UNICEF's emergency unit from New York. "[Problems are] more related to funding and security."

And just as UNHCR finds donor interest in Somalia difficult to maintain despite having successfully repatriated more than 42,000 refugees from Kenya in 1995 a major roadblock for OLS lies with donor contributions. If funds are not available when security conditions on the ground permit access, then little can be achieved and people go hungry.

"We need money to keep the operation going," O'Brien said. "Needs are not met to let the operation run successfully."

Assisting the internally displaced and other people affected by the general collapse of services due to Sudan's war is not cheap. OLS will require some $107.6 million in 1996 for food aid and a variety of other activities, including health programmes, guinea worm eradication campaigns, and livestock and veterinary programmes targeting a total of 4.2 million beneficiaries in both the north and south of the country.

In Somalia, UNHCR works to enhance the capacity of communities to cope with the strain brought on by the arrival of returnees and the presence of thousands of internally displaced persons.

Recent organized repatriation operations have come from Kenya, but spontaneous movements have also reduced refugee numbers considerably in neighbouring countries. Such spontaneous movements also serve to help relay information about the safety of clan areas back to refugees. Repatriation operations in 1996 are also expected to include refugee movements from Ethiopia, Yemen and Djibouti.

UNHCR has been assisting people to return to north-west Somalia, although insecurity in the area in 1995 prevented any organized movement. Regardless of the periodic lack of humanitarian space, Kyaw Zin Hla, head of UNHCR's North West Somalia office in Hargeisa, believes the organization can do more to work with the clan system to assist people to return home.

"Political boundaries do not mean that much," said Hla, noting the nomadic lifestyle of many people in the region. "Clan boundaries are more flexible, more important. This has more positive effects on repatriation."

David Lambo, UNHCR's Regional Liaison Representative in Addis Ababa, says this nomadic lifestyle means there will always be people on the move in the Horn of Africa.

"There is a solution, I believe, to the refugee situation," Lambo said. "But the countries will always have to deal with an exceptionally mobile population that does not respect borders. It's something that has always gone on. Nomads will always look for pasture and water availability, but political crises in countries like Somalia have exacerbated this."

Like OLS, UNHCR must work continually to attract donor interest in its operations to assist Somali refugees and returnees. In 1996, UNHCR's North West Somalia operations and the Kenya-based Cross-Border Operation will require a combined total of some $13 million. This is a relatively small sum, but donor interest has so far been minimal. Operations in 1995 had to be funded out of monies borrowed from UNHCR's general voluntary repatriation fund.

UNHCR North West Somalia and the Cross-Border Operation design and implement rehabilitation activities, Quick Impact Projects (QIPs), in local communities. These small-scale assistance programmes are designed to help returnees, new arrivals and local residents alike, and to restore community services neglected during long years of war and internal strife. The establishment of QIPs benefits the entire population, and thus reduces or eliminates animosity toward the returnees.

In 1995, for example, despite poor donor support, UNHCR implemented 35 QIPs in the Kismayo, Sakoweyn, Afmadu and Galcayo regions. Costing between a few hundred to a few thousand dollars each, these projects improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Somalis and gave refugees in countries like Kenya added impetus to repatriate.

Funds went to projects such as a brick works in Wamo, canoe construction in Kismayo, a bakery run by women in Galcayo, and financial support to the Sakoweyn women's group. UNHCR-aided projects assisted residents and returnees alike, making communities more viable and repatriation more plausible. But the lack of donor support in 1995 meant that some 90 projects were not implemented.

While UNHCR did scrape together funds for a 1995 seed distribution programme in Jamame and Jilib, it was unable to fund $35,000 worth of farm tools to help farmers plant and those seeds and harvest the produce. Likewise in Badhade and Kismayo, UNHCR provided seeds to locals and returnees but lacked the $28,000 necessary to fund the distribution of farm tools necessary to ensure a successful harvest.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (1996)