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Somolia There's been change in a land that once claimed Africa's largest refugee population

OVERSHADOWED by the famine in Sudan and Ethiopia, Somalia is finding it increasingly difficult to convince the world that it is in need of more relief for its many refugees. Western donor governments, who foot the bulk of Somalia's swollen aid bill, have become skeptical of the government's refugee policies and their count of the refugee population. Donors also want to know if the 700,000 asylum seekers officially alleged to have crossed over from neighboring Ethiopia constitute a genuine refugee dilemma.

Accurate figures and precise definitions of who is and who is not a refugee will help insure that aid will reach those who need it and who are entitled to it. Western aid officials now think the number of actual refugees is approaching 500,000. But they also suspect that many of those receiving assistance, as many as 30 percent in some camps, aren't refugees at all but local Somalis. Conditions in refugee camps are often better than conditions among the local inhabitants.

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Trying to determine a ``legitimate'' refugee is not easy. For a region whose people are split by artificial frontiers, traditional refugee norms do not always apply.

Adding to the numbers problem, officials also suspect that some of the registered refugees hold more than one ration card, thus allowing them to claim more than their rightful share of the available aid.

There is little doubt that a substantial number of those claiming asylum have fled war or political persecution. Several recent arrivals interviewed by this correspondent said they left home rather than face enforced collectivization under Ethiopia's Marxist government. Others said they had no wish to be conscripted in the army to fight unpopular wars such as Eritrea or Tigr'e.

In 1980, when this correspondent first visited the Horn of Africa, Somalia claimed the dubious honor of the largest refugee population in Africa, if not the world. Foreign relief workers, however, soon began to raise doubts about government claims and the actual status of many of the ``refugees.''

They discovered that nomads from both sides of the frontier, for example, were sending women and children to the camps, while the men stayed behind to graze the herds. Also, it is alleged that the military was diverting relief supplies to feed its own soldiers. Refugee aid had simply become part of the normal food cycle.

``I think we have to ask ourselves whether, by pouring in relief year after year, the international community is not in fact perpetuating the refugee problem,'' noted one senior Western diplomat.

For the destitute Somali government, the refugee emergency of 1980 was an economic and political bonanza. But international donor pressure forced the Somalis to downgrade their claims to a more realistic compromise of 700,000, less than half the original official estimate.

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Still, the numbers controversy continues. The government maintains that since June last year an additional 150,000 new arrivals have entered the country.

But no one, so far, has the mandate to undertake a census. Donors are particularly wary of a refugee count supervised by the government or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

They strongly criticize the UNHCR, notably its operations in the northwest region, for toeing too closely the Somalian-government line.

The only organization respected by donors and government and capable of carrying out a census is CARE, the New York-based relief agency, say observers here.

But CARE, which is already coordinating Somalia's relief logistics, is not too keen on tackling the job because of the political implications.

``One would probably have to surprise the refugees,'' said one representative. ``Throw up a military cordon around the camp -- no one in, no one out -- and then start counting.''

The urgent need of a census is evident. More reliable refugee statistics could resolve some of the more tricky problems, including the debate over whether camps are actually experiencing food shortages or unequal distribution.

At present, the refugee ration stands as low as 1,100 calories a day, a disasterous level when compared to the recommended supply of 1,850. ``Something is badly wrong,'' said one European diplomat. ``We estimate that 10 percent of the children are badly nourished, but only 5 percent are receiving supplementary feeding.''

Most donor countries feel that despite shortages created by shipping delays, there is enough aid to cover the needs of those who are truly refugees.

None of this, however, is bringing to an end the long-term dilemma of Somalia's refugees.

The government still seems to want to keep the refugee crisis alive by putting new arrivals in desolate locations away from the towns, refusing to encourage ``permanent'' resettlement. According to analysts, the refugee issue is a regional problem that can be solved only with regional responses. To encourage them, or ``twist their arms,'' as one official put it, development aid should only be granted on a regional rather than a national basis.

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