The 1977-78 Ogaden War caused a massive influx of Somalis who had been living in eastern Ethiopia (and to a lesser extent from other areas) into Somalia. Most refugees were ethnic Somalis, but there were also many Oromo, an ethnic group that resided primarily in Ethiopia. The Somali government appealed for help to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in September 1979, but UNHCR did not initiate requests for international aid until March 1980.
In its first public appeal to the UN, the Somali government estimated 310,000 in the camps in September 1979. By mid-1980 estimates had risen to 750,000 persons in camps and at least half that number outside them. In early 1981, Mogadishu estimated that there were more than 1.3 million refugees in the camps and an additional 700,000 to 800,000 refugees at large, either attempting to carry on their nomadic way of life or quartered in towns and cities.
In 1980 representatives of international agencies and other aid donors expressed skepticism at the numbers Somalia claimed, and in 1981 these agencies asked UN demographers to conduct a survey. The survey estimated 450,000 to 620,000 refugees in the camps; no estimate was made of the number of refugees outside the camps. The Somali government rejected the survey's results; international agencies subsequently based their budgeting on a figure of 650,000.
Conflicting figures concerning the composition of the refugee population by age and sex led a team of epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control of the United States Public Health Service to determine the demographic characteristics of a sample of refugee camps in mid-1980. They found the very young (under five years of age) to range from 15 to 18 percent of the camp population; those from five to fifteen years of age ranged from 45 to 47 percent; from 29 to 33 percent were between fifteen years of age and forty-four; 6 to 8 percent were forty-five years or older. The epidemiologists did not find the male-female ratio unusually distorted.
In 1990 there were refugee camps in four of Somalia's sixteen regions, or administrative districts. The number of persons in these camps ranged from under 3,000 to more than 70,000, but most held 35,000 to 45,000 refugees. According to a government document, the camps in Gedo held a total of more than 450,000 persons, in Hiiraan more than 375,000, in Woqooyi Galbeed well over 400,000, and in Shabeellaha Hoose nearly 70,000.
The burden of the refugee influx on Somalia was heavy. Somalia was one of the world's poorest countries, an importer of food in ordinary circumstances and lacking crucial elements of physical and social infrastructure such as transportation and health facilities. The general poverty of the indigenous population and the ad hoc character of the National Refugee Commission established under the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development and other government agencies dealing with the refugee problem contributed to the misuse and even the outright theft of food and medical supplies intended for refugees.
In a country with limited arable land and fuels and visited fairly often by drought or flash floods, refugees were hard put to contribute to their own support. Some refugee camps were so located that transportation of food and medical supplies was fairly easy, but that was not true for many other camps. Some were in or near areas where, in a year of good rain, crops could be grown, but others were not. In almost all cases, easily accessible firewood had been rapidly depleted by early 1981, and the refugees had to go long distances for what little could be found.
Despite the responses of a number of countries--including the United States--to the nutritional and medical requirements of the refugees, their situation in mid-1981 remained difficult. Epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control reported in early 1980 that the "major problem affecting the refugee children was protein energy malnutrition." Child mortality was high, particularly among newly arrived refugees. A 1980 epidemic of measles was responsible for many deaths in camps in Gedo and Woqooyi Galbeed. Another leading cause of children's deaths was diarrhea, a consequence in part of the severe lack of adequate sanitation, particularly with respect to water sources.
To sustain the refugee population even at a low level required regular contributions from other countries, an adequate and competently managed distribution system and, if possible, some contribution by the refugees themselves to their own subsistence. In April 1981, Somalia's Ministry of National Planning and Jubba Valley Development issued its Short- and Long-Term Programme for Refugees detailing projected needs and proposals, all of which required international support in various forms--money, food, medical supplies, and foreign staff, among others. When the program was published, overall responsibility for refugees lay with the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development and its National Refugee Commission. Other ministries, including those of health and education, had responsibility for specific projects. By 1990 many ministries had special divisions or sections devoted to refugee matters. However, as noted earlier, by mid-1991 government ministries had ceased functioning.
Age and sex composition, camp conditions, and refugee needs remained roughly constant until 1988, when the civil war, particularly in the north, produced a new and massive wave of refugees. This time the refugees went from Somalia to Ethiopia, where a large number of displaced northerners, mainly members of the Isaaq clan-family fleeing the violence and persecution from the Somali Army's "pacification" campaigns, sought sanctuary in Ethiopia's eastern province, Harerge Kifle Hager. The new wave of asylum- seekers almost doubled the number of displaced persons in the region. According to the UNHCR, Ethiopia and Somalia between them hosted in 1989 a refugee population of about 1.3 million. Nearly 960,000 of the total were ethnic Somalis. Somalia hosted 600,000 refugees, of whom nearly 80 percent were ethnic Somalis from Harerge, Ogaden, Bale, and Borena regions. The remaining 20 percent were Oromo, the largest ethnic group in the Horn of Africa, from Harerge, Bale, and Borena regions.
In southern Somalia, refugees lived in camps in the Gedo and Shabeellaha Hoose regions. In the northwest, camps were distributed in the corridor between Hargeysa and Boorama, northwest of Hargeysa. Because of the nomadic tendency of the Somali and Oromo refugees, major population shifts occurred frequently.
According to UNHCR statistical data for 1990, the camps in southern and central Somalia housed about 460,000 displaced persons. No reliable statistical data existed on the gender and age composition of the refugee population in Somalia. Informed conjecture put the sex ratio at 60 percent female and 40 percent male--the differential resulting from the migration of some of the men to the oil-rich Middle East countries, where they sought employment.
A significant number of Somali refugees emigrated to European countries, in particular Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland (where Somalis constituted the largest number of refugees), and Canada. Britain had a particularly generous asylum policy toward Isaaq refugees.
In providing assistance and relief programs, the UNHCR had collaborated in the past with an assortment of nongovernmental organizations and voluntary agencies. Their assistance fell into two general categories: care and maintenance programs, and what was described as a "durable solution." The former were assistance programs alleviating immediate needs for food, water, sanitation, health, shelter, community services, legal assistance, and related requirements. Durable solutions were voluntary repatriation based on prior clearance given by the Ethiopian government, local integration in Somalia with limited assistance, and facilitation of integration of refugees who demonstrated a well-founded fear for their safety should they repatriate. For most refugee assistance programs, local difficulties caused problems that led to charges of mismanagement, insensitivity, and corruption.
In 1990 there were approximately 360,000 Somali refugees in eastern Ethiopia, almost all of whom belonged to the Isaaq clan from northern Somalia. These refugees had sought asylum as a result of the May 1988 attack in which Somali National Movement guerrillas seized the city of Burao for three days and almost occupied Hargeysa. In the counteroffensive, government troops indiscriminately shelled cities, causing practically the entire Isaaq urban population to flee in panic into Ethiopia. Six refugee camps contained the displaced Isaaq: 140,000 in the Aware camps of Camabokar, Rabasso, and Daror; 10,000 in Aysha; and 210,000 in two camps at Hartishek.
According to the UNHCR, in the camps for Somali refugees the refugees generally lived in family units. Although the 1988 influx contained mainly urban dwellers from Hargeysa and Burao, by the end of 1989 the camp population included many pastoralists and nomads. Their tendency to remain in one location for only short periods presented major problems for public health monitoring.
With the flight of Siad Barre and consequent fall of his government in late January 1991, significant population shifts occurred. According to sketchy UNHCR reports, there were more than 50,000 Somali refugees in various camps in Mombasa, Kenya. These were mainly Daarood who had fled as a result of Hawiye clan-family assaults on them when the state disintegrated and the Daarood residents of Mogadishu became the objects of revenge killings. Another 150,000 were scattered in the North Eastern Province of Kenya, especially in and around the border town of Liboi and slightly farther inland. Other thousands had fled to eastern Ethiopia, where the UNHCR stated it was feeding more than 400,000 ethnic Somalis. Many others were dispersed throughout the border areas.
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