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One Year On from Horn of Africa Crisis

After being separated from his family during the conflict in Somalia, 16 year old Hassan is reunited with his baby sister in Dollo Ado’s Kobe camp, Ethiopia. UNHCR/ L.Padoan

One year ago, desperate Somali refugees began pouring into neighbouring countries, driven from their homes by conflict, human rights abuses and the worst drought in decades. This latest chapter was another stark reminder of the Somali population’s tragic and prolonged suffering spanning more than twenty years.

Facing violence and starvation, tens of thousands sought survival in refugee camps in the region. Most walked through the desert for days or weeks and arrived exhausted, sick and emaciated, often carrying their weak and dying children or the few belongings they had. 

Today, many challenges remain. Continuing conflict and poor seasonal rains are still forcing people to flee their country although at lower levels than were seen last summer. In the first four months of 2012 around 20,000 Somalis sought refuge in neighbouring Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen (on average 40,000 Somalis fled their homeland each month between June and September of 2011).

This May, the Dollo Ado camps in Ethiopia, which were already hosting more than 150,000 refugees, saw a significant increase in new arrivals, from less than 980 in the first half of May to more than 2,000 in the second half. The newcomers say they are fleeing increased physical insecurity and dwindling food resources. Specifically, they cite fear of being caught in military operations, forced recruitment, poor rains, and crop destruction by caterpillars as reasons for leaving Somalia. UNHCR is working with the Ethiopian authorities to identify a site for a sixth camp in this already crowded and environmentally fragile area.

Meanwhile, at Dadaab in Kenya, more than 460,000 refugees continue to live in a precarious security environment. The threat of improvised explosive devices, shootings, kidnapping and banditry remains high. Yet, deliveries of assistance and activities in the camps continue regardless, and long-established refugees have teamed up with host communities to generously assist new arrivals and share whatever resources they could.

Throughout the past year the priority and toughest challenge for UNHCR and its partners has been to reduce the unprecedented mortality and malnutrition rates among Somali arrivals.

Despite life-saving medical care and therapeutic feeding programmes in the Dadaab and Dollo Ado refugee camps, many of the newly arriving children have been beyond help – dying within hours or days of arrival. At the peak of the influx last summer, the estimated death toll was as high as 17 deaths per 10,000 people every day. 

Thanks to critical nutrition programmes combined with mass vaccinations, mortality and malnutrition rates began to drop, but it took months before they fell below the levels usually seen in an emergency. Today, Ethiopia’s Dollo Ado camp reports an average mortality rate of 0.8 per 1,000 per month and Kenya’s Dadaab complex an average mortality rate of 0.2 per 1,000 per month.

Another vital achievement has been the reduction in the high malnutrition rates unseen in decades. Malnutrition was especially alarming among refugee children - in June and July last year more than half of Somali children arriving in Ethiopia were acutely malnourished. That rate was somewhat lower among those arriving in Kenya, but equally disturbing – between 30-40%. 

The results of the most recent mass screenings show a sharp reduction of malnutrition among under-fives in Dadaab (7%). In Dollo Ado, the malnutrition levels among children also stabilised with all camps showing a positive trend. In the older Melkadida and Bokolomayo camps, acute malnutrition rates have fallen to 15%. 

Neighbouring countries have borne the brunt of the Somali displacement throughout the latest emergency in the Horn of Africa. Pressure is huge on the host communities as the Somali crisis continues to affect the entire region. They need continued international support. 

Some 300,000 people fled Somalia last year alone. Today, more than 980,000 Somalis live as refugees in neighbouring Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen and Djibouti.
Meanwhile, UNHCR is providing emergency assistance within Somalia, to around 14,000 who have been displaced this May as a result of military activity in Afgooye. 

World Refugee Day 2012

Marked each year on June 20. Find out all about World Refugee Day here.