Sarah Kenyon Lischer Headshot

No Refuge for Somali Refugees

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Famine victims leaving Somalia are beyond desperate. Half dead, they are spending all their meager resources to stumble into neighboring Kenya in hopes of finding refuge. After all, they are refugees. International law mandates their protection. The moral imperative to help our neighbor demands the provision of basic human needs. Do these refugees find protection and assistance? Rarely. Most find themselves in a situation barely more tenable than before. If they are lucky, they make it into the camps -- built to house 90,000 and now swollen with over 450,000 people. The less fortunate gather twigs in the desert to build shelter for their dying children.

The forced movement of people creates massive humanitarian needs. It also exacerbates political and even military threats. The security threats related to forced migration affect not only refugees, but also aid workers, local citizens, host states, sending states, international donors, and potential interveners. In addition to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, there is a risk of international war and regional instability connected with refugee flows. Clearly, it is essential to help end the displacement crisis in the Horn of Africa.

The crisis in Somalia demonstrates that humanitarian crises and international war can no longer be analyzed in isolation. Famine and conflict cause refugee crises. Refugee crises then exacerbate hunger and violence. This leads to a spiral of suffering among civilians. The reality now is that civil wars do not remain quarantined within national borders. And that forced migration is not an accidental byproduct of war. Many combatants use the forced movement of people as an intentional war strategy.

Refugees make easy targets for opportunistic and predatory fighters. Although they fled their homes to escape conflict, their new accommodations may prove even more dangerous. By targeting refugees, attacks highlight the weakness of the international protection regime -- such as United Nations peacekeepers -- and the legally responsible host state. In many cases, the attacks provoke a spiral of further displacement and regional destabilization. When militants target refugees and aid workers they often manage to disrupt humanitarian activity. This is a clear strategy used by al-Shabaab in Somalia.

In the last month, militants have abducted aid workers in both Somalia and Kenya. These attacks predictably led to a suspension of aid operations. After the abduction of two Spanish women staff members, Doctors Without Borders cut many programs and pulled out of some camps altogether, waiting for security to improve. In addition to the dire humanitarian consequences of these attacks, they also undermine regional security.

Another way in which militants manipulate aid is through controlling access to vulnerable populations and redirecting the distribution of aid. In Somalia, al-Shabaab is manipulating humanitarian organizations for these purposes. The militants hold the power to allow aid to reach the population under their control. This allows al-Shabaab, and other opportunistic groups, to set the terms for international donations to end the famine. The cost of this political manipulation is thousands of preventable deaths.

When security dynamics, such as those present in the Horn of Africa, attract the attention of Western governments, aid agencies and aid recipients may suffer the consequences. The risk of terrorists infiltrating displaced populations may override human security concerns and hinder the distribution of aid. Thus, traditional international security concerns become intertwined with issues of human security.

In terms of terrorism, states have two main concerns: that aid will support the terrorists; and that terrorists will support aid. The United States has laws which are meant to prevent aid from supporting terrorism. However, these laws greatly hinder groups who want to provide aid in al-Shabaab territory for fear of legal repercussions. The second concern is that terrorists will go into the aid business for themselves. Militant groups can fill the humanitarian void and buy loyalty of recipients, or at least make a propaganda statement about the failings of Western aid.

The final and largest threat is that of regional war. Kenya has employed ground troops and air power in Somalia to target al-Shabaab. Attacks against refugees on Kenyan territory strengthen the resolve of the government to intervene in Somalia. Actions to prevent the spread of war, however, could actually ignite further conflict. A camp for displaced Somalis has already been caught in the crossfire. At least five residents were killed and dozens wounded. Aid agencies have withdrawn services until security improves. For the foreseeable future, the refugees will have no refuge.

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