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Jim Selman

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Fleeing to Djibouti: The Life of Somali Refugees

Posted: 03/15/10 06:42 PM ET

The New York Times reported on March 5th that the U.S. is helping the Somali government prepare to take back Mogadishu. As part of a counterterrorism strategy, this American support may make the country, steeped in anarchy for 20 years, less hospitable for Al Quaeda and Al Shahab and its allies. Young Somali men who have been training for the past few months in neighboring Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Sudan are now reinforcing the 6,000 to 10,000 troops, freshly armed and equipped, that will be led by General Gelle. What this means for the Somali people waits to be seen, but in all probability, it will involve more forced displacements and refugees seeking asylum.

While government forces in Somalia get ready to regain control in the capital, Djibouti is steeling itself. According to Ann Encontre, UNHCR representative in Djibouti, southern Somalia and Mogadishu have been relying on local food supplies since WFP withdrew its food aid program in January this year. Local UN staff in Somalia have been distributing non-food items, such buckets, pots and pans, and UNICEF have been providing vaccinations. Other agencies on the ground have been catering to people's needs where they have access outside of Mogadishu. But by April, Somali's reserves from its 2009 bumper crop might run out. It is expected that hundreds or thousands more of its 1.5 million uprooted citizens will desperately try to cross the 36-mile long border with Djibouti, avoiding Kenya's closed borders and Ethiopia's numerous roadblocks, to find refuge and sustenance.

Djibouti is supportive of the Somali government. This tiny coastal nation, with its scant rainfall and rising unemployment, already imports most of the food for its 600,000 citizens. Considering Djibouti now shelters 13,000 registered refugees in Ali Addeh camp and 1,000 Somali and non-Somali asylum seekers in urban areas (many of whom have been here since civil war broke out two decades ago in Somalia), the gap between what the government can provide and what the people need will continue to grow larger. Currently, Djibouti government staff and UNHCR staff screen incoming refugees at the border at Loyada to verify they are legitimately coming from the troubled zones of Somalia (and not peaceful areas like Somaliland) before granting them prima facie status. Once they are registered, fingerprinted and photographed, legitimate refugees are taken by truck to Ali Addeh, the closest camp in the district of Ali Sabieh, which shelters 12,000 people.

All refugees here face two possible solutions: local integration or resettlement. Recently the U.S. government started a resettlement plan for people at risk, taking in approximately 400 of the most vulnerable women, household heads, and some of the longest-staying refugees in the camp. Meanwhile, brilliant university students, young men who left Ethiopia in 2005 along with others who fled Mogadishu and Eritrea, find life in the camp untenable: they have no future there. Education facilities and resources only are available up to grade 8 for 2,000 of the 3,000 camp children. Resources are needed to build a secondary school to accommodate the 1,000 adolescents who are receiving no secondary or higher education, especially the young male adolescents who, like the ex-Mogadishu university students, are all potential targets for recruitment by Al Quaeda and Al Shahab. UNHCR is discussing the possibility of establishing resettlement programs with Canada, Australia and Nordic countries to ensure opportunities exist for those who are willing and able to create a new life elsewhere.

For those who remain in the camp--and that is the vast majority--life focuses on the essentials: shelter, food, water, healthcare.

It is an ongoing struggle to meet the needs of new arrivals. There are never enough tents to provide shelter, and in the extreme heat and strong winds of the region, families are left to fend for themselves. Soon after arriving, many women, unable to make ends meet, are forced into domestic service to feed themselves and their children. "Girls are exposed to sexual violence at all times," shares Ms. Encontre. "We see them being forced to work as domestics as young as eight years old, and very often they come back to the camp pregnant after having been raped by the men of the household."

"We've been seeing an alarming number of refugees coming into the camp from south and central Somalia who are severely undernourished, anemic and sickly," adds Ms. Encontre. Last year, the UN started a nutrition project with donations from a French company that provide robust proteins, vitamin A, and iron in the form of enriched peanut butter. UNHCR supplements this with liver, sardines, and vegetables. Currently, one medical doctor from the Asian Medical Doctors Association bears responsibility for the health of all 12,000 people in the camp. This one doctor cannot possibly meet the growing needs of the camp's population.

Cooking has its challenges in terms of energy resources. The French Army brings in 20,000 litres of kerosene to the camp each month and every family receives an allotment. However, without the benefit of energy-saving stoves, the women must resort to scouring the desert for sticks, trees, and charcoal. Not only do they destroy the environment in doing so, but they also put themselves at risk. Young girls and women now have to travel 5 to 10 kms to find firewood and water. A number have been assaulted and raped by men from the camp and the surrounding areas and districts. Lighting some key areas around the camp with solar panels may provide some limited protection, but cannot address the underlying issues: lack of sufficient fuel and lack of respect for women.

Water is even more essential than food and energy in this very arid desert. Providing 20 litres of safe drinking water per day to each refugee in the camp poses enormous problems. The area has received its first rains in 6 years, but the sheer number of refugees has pushed the area's natural supply to its limit. Each week, money goes to pay for a rented truck that brings in water from the closest well, which adolescents from the camp help distribute. The relatively inexperienced refugees are responsible for chlorinating their own water with pellets, a critical task with latrines still located downstream and upstream from the camp.

In January, the team of Djibouti's French-speaking water experts who were to be working on setting up a proper water filtration and preservation system for the camp were sent to Haiti to help with relief efforts there. Meanwhile, the camp, on standby for another team to be identified, hopes to find assistance to buy their own water truck. Discussions are being held between UNHCR, UNICEF, and the Government focusing on the possibility of digging another bore hole in the camp or of opening a second camp in an area where the water supply is more plentiful. Wells in any location require permits and the help of outside experts for at least a year to supervise the necessary work.

The cries for help are many.

Efforts to empower the Somalis caught in this situation focus on providing them with essential skills and opportunities to contribute to their refugee community. Adults and young children alike clamor for lessons in English. Every afternoon, parents sit in on their children's lessons in the camp school for an hour or two to learn what they can. The camp's university students and adolescents all speak English as their common language, and crave to learn more. Local Catholic and Protestant churches have housed volunteers teaching here in their accommodations, which are a 45-minute drive away. UNHCR's guest house is available near the camp as well; however, volunteers tend to stay for only three to six months before moving on. The need for volunteers to teach English has not yet met the demand. At the same time, opportunities for French language courses are also very welcome by refugees to help them integrate locally into this Francophone country.

Last October, the UN began running several pilot projects to keep refugees busy, provide additional food and give them some income. Those involved in income-generating projects (involving activities like sewing, baking bread, providing tea and cool drinks in cafes and selling goats, meat, and vegetables) receive a certain amount of money to run their own small 'business'. They must account for their expenses and report their profits every week. Refugees use their earnings to buy clothes and shoes. The initiative, funded by several thousand dollars saved through restructuring done at UNHCR's headquarters in Geneva, is a beginning.

If you or your organization are interested in contributing time or resources to the process of empowering the Somali refugees living in Djibouti, please visit www.givethemshelter.org and join UNHCR's campaign to send them 2,600 much needed tents. To find out more about the living conditions and the situation of Somali refugees, join a live Twitter feed organized directly from Djibouti with Kathryn Mahoney, UNHCR public information officer, on March 23.

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copyright 2010 Shae Hadden with Jim Selman. All rights reserved.