UNHCR starts relocation in Ethiopia of 4,000 Somali refugees

The UN refugee agency has reopened a camp in eastern Ethiopia and begun relocating some 4,000 Somali refugees there from an overcrowded settlement close to the border with Somalia.

A group of Somali families prepare to explore their new home in Teferi Ber, eastern Ethiopia.   © UNHCR/K.G.Egziabher

TEFERI BER, Ethiopia, July 17 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has reopened the Teferi Ber camp in eastern Ethiopia and begun relocating some 4,000 Somali refugees there from an overcrowded makeshift settlement close to the border with Somalia.

The first two convoys on Friday and Monday carried a total of 1,043 people, who were warmly and loudly welcomed by the local population when they arrived at the UNHCR-run camp here from Kebribeyah, some 120 kilometres to the south. There will be a convoy every three days.

"Praised be to Allah that I managed to escape the chaos and extreme violence of [the Somali capital] Mogadishu with my 10 children to enjoy such a rousing welcome," said Ader Yusuf, who arrived in Teferi Ber on Friday.

She is part of a group of 4,000 Somali refugees recently granted refugee status by UNHCR and the Ethiopian government after fleeing fighting over the past year in central and southern Somalia between the Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government and insurgents.

They have been staying in Kebribeyah, which has limited room for expansion. An estimated 7,000 additional Somalis are waiting to be screened for refugee status at other sites in eastern Ethiopia.

"We looked at a number of options and found that although it is close to the border, Teferi Ber is the best location because there is water," explained George Menze, head of the UNHCR office in the regional capital, Jijiga. He added that UNHCR and the Ethiopian government planned with other partners to build a school, health centre and other basic infrastructure at Teferi Ber, which lies just 12 kilometres from the border with the self-declared Republic of Somaliland.

In the new camp, the refugees were given food as well as tarpaulins, blankets, sleeping mats, kitchen sets, jerry cans, kerosene stoves and soap. They were to spend three days in a reception centre before moving to their new accommodation.

The residents of Teferi Ber clapped and ululated when Friday's convoy rolled up at the camp. "This is yet another sign of generous hospitality by the people of Teferi Ber, who hosted up to 49,000 Somali refugees in the past," said Chanda Cosmas, referring to UNHCR's use of Teferi Ber as a camp in the 1990s. Cosmas, UNHCR's deputy representative in Ethiopia, took part in the welcoming ceremonies. The Teferi Ber camp was officially closed in 2001 after all the refugees returned, mainly to nearby Somaliland.

Abdi Hassan, a 60-year-old resident of Teferi Ber, said that refugees caused a lot of environmental damage, while adding: "When they come to us for protection fleeing conflict in their own country, we must extend our welcoming hands."

Since April 2006, UNHCR has recorded a steady influx of Somali refugees into eastern Ethiopia. This has brought the total number of new asylum seekers to an estimated 23,000. In addition to the 4,000 recognized refugees and 7,000 asylum seekers in eastern Ethiopia, thousands more Somalis remain in remote, difficult-to-access border areas such as Dolo and Suftu in south-eastern Ethiopia.

"We have some new refugees along the border, but they are in areas where we cannot open camps. The locations are also too far away, which makes it difficult to relocate refugees from there to the new camp at Teferi Ber," said Cosmas.

The reopening of Teferi Ber reverses a trend which has seen the closure of eight out of nine refugee camps in eastern Ethiopia over the past few years and the gradual winding down of UNHCR's operations for Somali refugees in the area.

At the height of the Somali emergency in 1988, UNHCR was caring for more than 628,000 Somali refugees in Ethiopia, a figure which dropped to 10,365 by the end of organized repatriation to Somalia in 2005. The camp at Kebribeyah today hosts 16,572 Somali refugees most of whom arrived in Ethiopia in 1991.

By Kisut Gebre Egziabher in Teferi Ber, Ethiopia