– When Hassen Ibrahim arrived recently in Ethiopia, the teenager had not seen his parents for more than two years. “As the eldest son, I stayed behind to take care of my grandmother, who was too sick to travel,” explained the 15-year-old, shortly after crossing into eastern Ethiopia after fleeing drought-hit Somalia.
Hassen is one of an increasing number of unaccompanied children who are turning up at refugee camps set up in Ethiopia’s Dollo Ado district. Most were obliged to stay behind to look after ailing or elderly relatives who could not make the arduous journey to Ethiopia from their homes in southern Somalia.
Many, like Hassen, made their own way to the border when the relative died or when it became too difficult to survive in their villages. But the journey to safety is fraught with danger, particularly for young males travelling on their own – unaccompanied minors are seen by UNHCR as highly vulnerable.
Those caught fleeing to Ethiopia are seen as traitors by the anti-government Al Shabaab militia and many newly arrived refugees have tales of seeing teenagers and young men being kidnapped, forcibly recruited or even executed.
Hassen was among the lucky ones who made it to Ethiopia unharmed and found their families. According to initial estimates, there could be as many as 2,500 unaccompanied children in Dollo Ado’s four refugee camps. The number who failed to make it to safety is not known.
When his parents and siblings left for Ethiopia in mid-2000, Hassen stayed behind in their village to look after his grandmother. But she died last July, leaving him free to join his family. “The goats had all died and there was no way for me to survive. I had to try to find my family,” he recalled.
It took him three days to reach the border, travelling by donkey cart and foot, he said, adding that when he got to Dollo Ado, “I didn’t know what to do. I knew that my family was here but there was no way for me to find them. I felt so distraught.”
Within hours, UNHCR registration clerks managed to trace Hassen’s parents and five siblings to Kobe camp. Two days later he was reunited with his family, who had been asking UNHCR staff every day if they knew of Hassen’s whereabouts.
When he finally arrived in Kobe, the family was overjoyed to greet him, and his father wept with happiness. “I am so grateful to UNHCR for finding my family, I feel like I’m at home again,” he told UNHCR staff.
Earlier this month, UNHCR, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Save the Children (USA) jointly carried out an extensive screening exercise to better determine the exact number of unaccompanied and separated children in the camps.
UNHCR’s registration team plays a vital role in reuniting families by tracing relatives through a comprehensive database system which records every refugee’s name, place of origin and clan ethnicity. Photographs and fingerprints are also taken to verify identity. For those children whose relatives cannot be traced, UNHCR will ensure that appropriate foster families are found so that no child is left alone.
“I hope that now I’m in Ethiopia, I can go to school. I’ve never been to school before,” Hassen said as he played with the five-month-old sister he met for the first time after arriving in Dollo Ado. “I’m so happy to be back with my family. This is where I belong.”
By Laura Padoan in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia (UNHCR)