Refugees arrive back in Somalia as agencies seek fresh aid

News Stories, 1 March 2004

© UNHCR/T.N.Gerard
Two Somali refugee girls on a rest stop as they make their way home from Djibouti with UNHCR.

HARGEISA, Somalia, March 1 (UNHCR) Hundreds of Somali refugees are returning home from Djibouti with the start of UNHCR repatriation convoys to north-western Somalia. This comes as aid agencies appeal for $111 million to help the war-torn country.

Some 220 Somali refugees returned from Djibouti to the self-declared republic of Somaliland in the north-west last Friday with assistance from the UN refugee agency, bringing to more than 430 the number of refugees who have gone back since the middle of February.

The latest group of returnees left Djibouti's Holl-Holl and Ali Addeh camps in buses hired by UNHCR and escorted by Djiboutian officials. They were met at the Loyada border crossing by authorities from Somaliland's Ministry of Repatriation and UNHCR workers based in Hargeisa, the capital of the increasingly prosperous north-western region.

The returnees are going to various communities, including Boroma, Harrirad, Jidhi, Elgal and Abdoulkadir. Each head of family receives nine months of food aid from the UN World Food Programme, plus a repatriation grant of $40 per person, as well as blankets, cooking sets, sleeping mats, tarpaulins and hygiene supplies from UNHCR. They also brought with them all their personal effects and shelter items from the camps.

Over the last 13 years, more than 867,000 Somali refugees have returned to their homeland, including more than 467,000 on convoys and airlifts organised by the UN refugee agency.

Some 400,000 Somalis remain in exile, mainly in neighbouring countries but also further afield, due to the continued instability in many areas of their homeland. There is hope on the horizon for many of these people, as various leaders from war-ravaged Somalia agreed in late January to establish a new parliament at talks in Kenya under the mediation of the six-nation Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD).

This year, UNHCR plans to repatriate 35,000 Somalis, while carefully measuring the pace of returns against the country's strained absorption capacity.

© UNHCR/T.N.Gerard
Loading up before departure.

Other voluntary repatriation movements planned this year include returns from eastern Ethiopia's camps. Hartisheik camp, where more than 400,000 Somalis sought aid when the civil war erupted 15 years ago, now only shelters 2,250 people. Most of these refugees are expected to go back, as are some of the 25,000 refugees in the neighbouring Kebribeyah and Aisha camps the last of what was once a string of eight camps along Ethiopia's remote eastern frontier.

Significant obstacles to repatriation remain, as Somalia's long civil war destroyed infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, water and sanitation systems and roads. Economic collapse, drought and a ban on livestock exports to the Gulf states have also had a dramatic effect, and fed the urge of many Somalis to flee to the Arabian Peninsula and Europe.

In order to help stabilise the situation inside Somalia and help communities that are receiving returning refugees, over the last two years UNHCR has implemented 225 quick impact projects in the water, health, education and transport sectors, including 174 in the north-west, 34 in the north-east, and 17 in Mogadishu.

Along with similar projects initiated by a host of partner agencies, these programmes have helped. But the country's needs are huge, with unemployment estimated at 80 percent, adult literacy at 17 percent and primary school attendance at only 14 percent.

In late February, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations operating in Somalia appealed for $111 million to assist the country this year. UNHCR's share of the 2004 consolidated appeal amounts to more than $5.7 million. A similar consolidated appeal for $70 million a year ago netted only half the requested amount, pointing towards the continuing challenge agencies face in helping Somalia meet its most pressing needs.

The UN appeal will help to provide urgent support to more than 200,000 Somalis whose livelihoods are threatened due to prolonged drought in the north of the country.