– UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visited Somalia on Tuesday and called for greater efforts to provide life-saving aid to tens of thousands of displaced Somalis inside their country.
Noting that UNHCR is assisting around 850,000 Somali refugees in neighbouring countries, with at least 1,500 still fleeing Somalia every day, Guterres, who heads UNHCR, said: “We should not aim at emptying Somalia, but rather at making every effort to provide aid inside [the country].”
The High Commissioner made his call while visiting Dollow, a dusty town on southern Somalia’s border with Ethiopia. Thousands of people fleeing drought, famine and violence in other parts of Somalia have flocked here, with many crossing into Ethiopia.
Guterres, accompanied by Sweden’s Minister for International Development and Cooperation Gunilla Carlsson, came to Dollow to show solidarity with the displaced population at a time of extreme suffering and to mark the Eid al Fitr holiday, which marks the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.
The visit represented the start of a major new effort by UNHCR and its partners to step up humanitarian aid inside Somalia, where huge numbers of people are in need of urgent assistance. UNHCR has had only intermittent access to many areas due to extreme insecurity.
Many of the displaced Somalis who talked to Guterres in Dollow had harrowing tales of loss and starvation during their flight across harsh desert terrain. He said it would be better if the international community could bring the aid to them, rather than have vast numbers of people risking their lives in search of food, water, shelter and other vital assistance.
“I am always fighting to make sure Somalis have the right to seek asylum,” Guterres said before adding: “Somalis should have the right to choose to stay in their own country.” He called on all parties to cease violence, respect humanitarian law and to allow unfettered access to all people in need.
Carlsson added that it was critical for the international community to “not only help in an emergency, but to address the root causes.”
The displaced in Dollow are camped in makeshift shelters of sticks and tattered cloth. Many say they will remain there until the rains come and the fighting between government troops and the Al Shabaab militia eases.
One woman, Hado Sugow, told the delegation she lost four of her children to starvation and thirst during the 15-day trek from her home to Dollow. “I will go back when there is rain,” she insisted. Somalia has been suffering its worst drought in more than half-a-century.
Dollow also serves as a major transit point for Somalis headed for the four UNHCR-run refugee camps in Ethiopia’s Dollo Ado district, which is a two-hour walk across the border. But increasing numbers, particularly farmers, are reluctant to leave Somalia, waiting instead to return to their land if the rains return as predicted in October.
The UN refugee agency continues to have indirect access to populations in Al Shabaab-controlled areas of Somalia through its NGO partners, who employ hundreds of Somali staff to distribute international aid.
UNHCR is significantly scaling up its distribution of emergency assistance packages in a bid to reach at least 400,000 people by mid-September. UNHCR is also enhancing its staff presence in Dollow and Dobley, also near the border, as well as in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
“This famine should be a turning point and we are determined to make a real difference to Somalis where they are, so that they don’t feel compelled to move to another country,” said Bruno Geddo, UNHCR’s representative to Somalia. “Humanitarian access in Somalia is gradually opening up and we are moving in to help step-by-step.”
By Melissa Fleming in Dollow, Somalia