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UNHCR team calls for renewed international support for Somalia

UNHCR team calls for renewed international support for Somalia

Citing a window of opportunity, UNHCR officials end three-week mission to the Horn of Africa by calling for a drastic increase in support for U.N. programmes in Somalia as that strife-torn nation enters what they describe as a critical transition period.
30 January 2004
Somali refugees at a water point in Haradera camp, in Kenya.

GAROWE, Somalia, Jan. 30 (UNHCR) - UNHCR officials concluding a 20-day mission to the Horn of Africa today called for a drastic increase in support for U.N. programmes in Somalia as that strife-torn nation enters a critical transition period.

The high-level UNHCR team, led by Geneva-based Inspector-General Dennis McNamara, spent the last three weeks in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. The mission reviewed UNHCR's operations in Somalia, with particular focus on refugees and returnees. McNamara said the team will make a number of proposals to UNHCR headquarters on the future direction and objectives of this programme and how it can work with other agencies to promote the sustainable reintegration of refugees.

Some 200,000 Somali refugees remain in the region, including more than 130,000 in Kenya and other large groups in Yemen, Djibouti and Ethiopia.

The team noted that Somali peace talks are continuing and cited the signing on Thursday of an agreement among Somalis to establish a new national parliament that in turn will elect a president, possibly leading to the first recognised national government in 13 years. They also pointed out that more than half the country has enjoyed relative peace and stability for some years and that there is now a window of opportunity to promote the return of up to 30,000 refugees to Somaliland and Puntland, in particular from Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen and Djibouti.

But for any refugee return to be viable, those going home - as well as the receiving populations - need increased help in all sectors, including health, water, education and income-generating opportunities.

Somalia remains one of the world's poorest countries, with nearly half its population living on less than US $1 a day and only 10 percent rural literacy. Less than one-fifth of all children attend primary school and 20 percent of children die before reaching the age of five. Only a quarter of the population has access to clean drinking water and 70 percent of families are estimated to rely on the income of women. In the last recorded UN Human Development Index that included Somalia, it was ranked third poorest out of 174 countries surveyed.

Despite the enormous obstacles, Somalia has received almost 1 million returning refugees in recent years. The majority have remained home despite the grinding poverty. According to a recent UNHCR survey, over 90 percent of those returning had insufficient income to meet their basic needs, and some two-thirds reportedly survived on one meal a day or less. Somalia also hosts several thousand refugees from neighbouring countries as well as an estimated 350,000 internally displaced people, mainly from the central and southern areas.

Last year, all UN agencies received only $35 million - or about half the requirements they had presented in the UN Consolidated Appeal for Somalia. Most of this was for humanitarian needs.

"This is totally inadequate in this critical transitional period, including for an increased voluntary return of refugees to safe areas of the country and for internally displaced populations to rebuild their lives with dignity," said McNamara. "The amount of support to all UN programmes and other agencies working in Somalia must be drastically increased in 2004 if these populations are to be stabilized. The Somali people, including returnees and displaced populations, continue to suffer because of the complexities of the political situation. Without increased services and basic stability for the population, particularly for women and children, consolidating peace in the countryside will be hampered."

Donor funding for Somalia has dropped by some 90 percent since the fall of the Siad Barre regime, and the country receives little direct transition and development aid. This has deprived the displaced of the most basic support. Currently, a drought in the northern part of the country exacerbates an already dramatic situation.

Some 12,000 Somalis each year still make the dangerous boat journey to Yemen searching better conditions. McNamara said the refugee camps for Somalis in Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti were "in very poor condition."

"Despite the poor conditions in the camps, thousands of refugees are reluctant to return home because conditions are even poorer in Somalia," said Simone Wolken, UNHCR's Representative for Somalia. "If donors want to further cut aid to the camps - as some do - they need to channel this support to Somalia to improve conditions there. Refugees need incentives, not just pressure, to go home."

McNamara said there was "clearly an international frustration and fatigue with the Somalia situation, which has remained largely off the international agenda in recent years. But we should have learned by now that we ignore such situations at our own peril - and we must all live with the consequences."