U.N. Refugee Chief: ‘Terrible’ to Know Somalis Are Dying Out of Reach

BY Larisa Epatko  October 31, 2011 at 9:30 AM EDT


Somalis at a camp in Dollow are some of at least 200,000 people displaced within the country to escape fighting between al-Shabab insurgents and the transitional government. Photo by S. Modola/UNHCR.

The humanitarian crisis in Somalia continues to deepen by the day. A recent spate of kidnappings of relief workers is preventing aid from reaching those most in need, and now troops from neighboring Kenya have entered Somalia to try to push the militant Islamic group al-Shabab away from its border.

Because of security concerns, many aid organizations have withdrawn their staff from the country and are relying on local partners to distribute supplies. The Islamic militant group al-Shabab, which is locked in battle with Somalia’s weakened transitional government, is restricting the entry of international organizations from areas under its control anyway, saying it will care for the residents.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres recently visited the Somali capital Mogadishu and refugee camps along the Ethiopian border and spoke of his frustration.

“I cannot describe how terrible it is to feel that you have people dying, children dying and that you cannot reach them. To know that there is a relatively easy solution to their plight if resources would be made available and access would be granted,” he told us last week.

Even those who reach the refugee camps encounter an unusually high mortality rate: an average of seven deaths per 10,000 people per day in the Dolo Ado refugee camps in Ethiopia, said Guterres. “It’s the worst I’ve seen in any situation in the world.”

We asked him more about the current aid crisis in Somalia (some answers were edited for length):

What did you see while you were in Somalia?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: To me what was very clear was the devastating impact of the drought compounded by conflict. I had already witnessed in Dolo Ado in Ethiopia and Dadaab in Kenya how people coming from Somalia had suffered tremendously. I met one woman who had been walking for two weeks and who had lost three of her children on the way.

This is the kind of drama you see multiplied on an enormous scale because you still have inside Somalia more than 1 million people without effective humanitarian aid because of the difficulties of access. I could not leave Mogadishu and outside the city humanitarian access is still extremely limited. And even inside the city, humanitarian workers are in danger. We have seen recently a number of humanitarian workers being kidnapped — two colleagues from Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Border) in Dadaab camp in Kenya, and three colleagues from a Danish NGO in the Galkayo area of Somalia.


People wait for supplies at an internally displaced camp in Dollow in south-western Somalia. Photo by S. Modola/UNHCR.

Has the United Nations adjusted its tactics in light of the access problems?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: There are different possibilities of access depending on the nature of the organizations. When food aid is essential, the World Food Program is crucial inside Somalia. But unfortunately, Shabab doesn’t allow the World Food Program to operate in the areas controlled by it. And so the International Committee of the Red Cross has the capacity to deliver food assistance in some areas of south-central Somalia under Shabab control.

Other organizations, including ours, UNHCR, but not in the food distribution but in shelter and non-food items, through our partners have been able to access some areas under Shabab control. But it has been impossible until now to create a formula in which all areas of south-central Somalia under Shabab control can be supported, and that means that we still leave a larger percentage of the population totally without the basic assistance they need to overcome the challenge of hunger and disease.

How many Somalis have been able to reach the refugee camps?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: We now have 940,000 Somali refugees in Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti, and those are assisted by UNHRC, other refugee agencies and NGOs trying to respond to their basic needs in food, shelter, and health, and — whenever we can — in education for the children.

Is the entry of Kenyan troops into Somalia helping or hurting?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: It’s difficult to have an assessment because the military operation is just unfolding now. I think the objective of the Kenyan authorities is to guarantee security in the areas that are close to the Kenyan border. For the moment, the impact of the fighting in those border areas has been to stop the movement of the population. So the number of people coming into that refugee camp on the Kenyan side of the border is very small.


A malnourished child is one of the residents at an internally displaced camp in Somalia. Photo by S. Modola/UNHCR.

What can the international community do?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: I think it’s important for the international community to fully support AMISOM (African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi) in Mogadishu. That force is dramatically ill-equipped. They lack all kinds of resources. It is absolutely essential that there is effective support — especially from countries that are not ready to send their soldiers to Somalia — for AMISOM to have the number of people and equipment needed to do their mandate. If they are strong enough and well-equipped it will be much easier for them to fully respect human rights, which is also another very important dimension in the peace-keeping mission, especially when there’s no peace to keep.

On the other hand, I think it’s very important that the international community acts in a coordinated way to allow for the roadmap — that was established in a recent meeting in Mogadishu of many of the key actors of the Somali political process — to move forward to a political solution.

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Ray Suarez discusses al-Shabab and the latest violence in Somalia with Reuters’ East Africa bureau chief:

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