Ethiopia: Refugee influx from Somalia feared to grow
12 December 2008

The influx of Somali refugees is causing JRS programs to stretch, such as this classroom in Addis Ababa. (Peter Balleis SJ/JRS)
Since 1991 the people of Somalia have been suffering under the grips of clan-oriented warlords, Islamist insurgents and Ethiopian-backed Somali government forces.
Addis Ababa, 12 December 2009 For almost two decades, since the fall of dictator Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia has been in political turmoil and was hit by frequent drought as well as rampant inflation. According to the UN, Somalia is the worst humanitarian crisis and one of the most neglected in the world.

Since 1991 the people of Somalia have been suffering under the grips of clan-oriented warlords, Islamist insurgents and Ethiopian-backed Somali government forces. Those who managed to flee alive have been forced to cross borders into neighbouring countries and live as refugees. Dadaab camp in eastern Kenya now holds the largest refugee concentration of the world and thousands keep arriving from Somalia every month. Many of those who did not manage to flee have lost their lives. Others have suffered family separations during their escape from the conflict situation. Since early 2007, 10,000 civilians have been killed, more than a million displaced and more than 3 million are in need of emergency assistance.

New refugee camps built for Somalis

Ethiopia is host to over 100,000 refugees from neighbouring Somalia. With the prevalence of relative peace in what is now Somaliland, repatriation of refugees started in 2003 and continued until 2005. The situation seemed relatively quiet following the establishment of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in 2004, but in June 2006 conflict broke out when the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) tried to overthrow the TFG. Ethiopia intervened trying to support the TFG. The intervention was backed by the US as part of the global fight against terrorism. It was at the same time an attempt to curb the spill-over effect of the conflict into Ethiopia.

Ethiopia went into the war in 2006, declaring that its forces would be out in a matter of weeks. Since then, two years have passed and Ethiopian forces are still in Somalia. Even though the UIC was ousted as planned, the conflict keeps escalating. Security worsened in 2008 when Al Shabaab militant group attacked forces of the TFG and its supporting Ethiopian forces and spread Islamist insurgency across several parts of the country.

The Al Shabaab group is reported to have captured a substantial number of towns in southern Somalia and is currently moving fast towards the capital Mogadishu. Only recently, on December 6, Al Shabaab took control of Gurael, 370 km north of the capital, killing 13 people and wounding dozens of others, as reported by The Daily Monitor newspaper. Consequently, the civilian Somali population did not get any respite to their plights and the refugee influx into neighbouring countries is growing each day. The situation has necessitated the establishment of two additional refugee camps, Teferiber/Aw-Barre and Sheder, in eastern Ethiopia.

JRS projects could be affected by influx of refugees

Regional and international efforts to put an end to the situation have repeatedly failed. Of late, the Government of Ethiopia has declared that it would withdraw its forces by the end of the current year. The reason is that neither the international community nor the leadership of Somalia, who is affected by internal divisions, had provided the necessary support. Many believe that the withdrawal of the Ethiopian forces would further escalate the conflict and leave Somalia in the hands of the hard-line Islamist insurgent groups. Others think that whether the Ethiopian forces withdrew or not, matters are already out of control and the collapse of the TFG is inevitable. Still others, including the Somali President, express the view that Ethiopian forces should stay until the UN and the African Union (AU) deploy their forces.

As reported by Voice of America (VOA) on December 4, an Ethiopian Foreign Ministry official said “Addis Ababa has agreed to push back its self-declared December 31 troop-withdrawal deadline by, at least a few weeks, to allow time for the AMISOM (AU forces) replacement to arrive.” According to the same source, the official emphasised, “Ethiopian policymakers are losing patience with the international community’s seeming lack of concern at the possible collapse of Somalia’s fragile Transitional Government, and the likelihood it would be replaced by an administration led by religious extremists hostile to the West.”

Whatever course events might take, the immediate impact on the Somali civilian population is feared to be of severe magnitude. Equally feared is the influx of refugees into neighbouring countries like Ethiopia. This would inevitably affect the work of JRS projects there.

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