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UNHCR starts return convoys from Ethiopian camp

UNHCR starts return convoys from Ethiopian camp

A long convoy of hired buses and trucks set out today from eastern Ethiopia's Aisha camp, snaking across the parched desert towards northern Somalia with 970 refugees seeking to rebuild their lives and their war-ravaged homeland.
26 May 2004
Aisha is the last of the camps in Ethiopia to launch repatriation convoys to Somalia.

JIJIGA, Ethiopia, May 26 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency today began its first repatriation from Aisha camp in eastern Ethiopia, helping nearly 1,000 Somali refugees return home after up to 16 years in exile.

On Wednesday, a massive 57-vehicle convoy took 970 refugees home to the Awdal area of north-western Somalia, also called Somaliland. Aisha is the last of the camps in Ethiopia to launch repatriation convoys. Many of the refugees had fled Somalia's civil war and been in exile since 1988.

For their return, UNHCR gave the refugees a small amount of cash for transportation, as well as blankets, cooking sets, sleeping mats, tarpaulins and hygiene supplies to help them restart life at home. Each family also received nine months' supply of food from the UN World Food Programme.

Another 1,000 Somali refugees are set to go home from Aisha camp next Monday, May 31. Repatriation convoys are scheduled to continue until the end of this year, when UNHCR hopes to close Aisha camp.

These returnees will join some 670,000 refugees who have gone back to north-western Somalia over the last 13 years, either on their own or with UNHCR assistance. This year, the agency plans to repatriate 35,000 Somalis to various parts of the country, carefully measuring the pace of returns against the desperately poor country's ability to absorb so many people. More than 430 Somalis have also returned home from neighbouring Djibouti since February.

The UN refugee agency has identified Somalia as one of eight countries in Africa where it expects to see significant refugee returns over the next five years, if security remains stable and donor countries ensure adequate amounts of rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance.

"The refugees from Aisha will face difficulties after so many years in a camp," said Simone Wolken, UNHCR Representative in Somalia. "But UNHCR is working together with the UN Development Programme, the International Labour Organisation and the Danish Refugee Council to see that the limited resources available are put to the best use to help the returnees become self-sufficient."

In late February, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations operating in Somalia appealed for $118 million to assist the war-torn Horn of Africa nation 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 earlier netted only half the requested amount, pointing towards the continuing challenge agencies face in helping Somalia meet its most pressing needs.

In order to help stabilise the situation inside north-western Somalia and to assist communities receiving returnees, UNHCR has implemented 174 quick impact projects in the water, health, education and transport sectors over the last two years. These programmes have helped, along with similar projects initiated by a host of partner agencies, but Somaliland's needs are huge.

In order to ensure a safe return for Aisha's Somali refugees, a UNHCR-funded road crew recently undertook grading and spot repair works. They also ensured that the area was checked for landmines left behind from the conflict 20 years ago when Somali forces invaded eastern Ethiopia, an attack that presaged the civil war and the eventual collapse of the Siad Barre government in Mogadishu.