One of the recent tragic events in the Horn of Africa is a conflict that has been raging in neighboring Somaliland since the beginning of this year. Thousands of people have died as a result of the fighting in Las Anod, Somaliland, and over a hundred thousand Somalis have fled from their homes to Ethiopia.
In spite of repeated droughts, the Doolo Zone in Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State has been providing safe haven to Somaliland’s displaced people.
Around 900,000 refugees and asylum seekers, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), are currently living in Ethiopia. Of these, 46 percent are from South Sudan, the youngest country in Africa, and 42 percent are seeking sanctuary in Gambella Region, western Ethiopia. There are an estimated 2.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs).
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) coordinates protection efforts for IDPs and refugees across the country. Moreover, it is currently coordinating the humanitarian response for Somaliland refugees.
The Reporter’s Samuel Bogale spoke with Mamadou Balde, the UNHCR’s Representative in Ethiopia, to gain insight into the current refugee crisis and its broader operations in the country. EXCERPTS:
The Reporter: What is the situation with refugees fleeing the conflict in Las Anod and sheltering in the Somali Region of Ethiopia?
Mamadou Balde: These people crossing the border for urgent support are people who were living their normal lives in and around Las Anod. They were forced to flee due to the violence, and when you are forced to flee, you only carry limited things, with some of the family members dispersed.
They crossed the border to Ethiopia, and despite its internal problems, Ethiopia has been extremely generous in receiving refugees. The communities around there have been suffering from the droughts, but they have received them.
What we really saw was a sense of desperation by the refugees and a sense of solidarity by the government of Ethiopia and the communities. The refugees also told us what they want: the possibility of returning very quickly. We also need to appease members of the international community to let people return home very quickly.
Women and children are affected the most in situations like this. What is the demography there, and how much support do they need?
Indeed, there are a large number of women and children who have crossed the border. I was there and observed a large group of these people who need support. We also saw that some of the refugees had their family members separated, and they are in different facilities, so they also need family tracing.
Food and water are the two major issues, in addition to the risk posed by malnutrition.
How many facilities are there, and what is the current refugee count there?
There are several of them. Because the host population also receives people in addition to the communal facilities, I am unable to count. They share the same clan affiliations. Despite the limitations in their own homes, they received the refugees, and they are trying their best to accommodate them. Some are in corner facilities with no place to stay, so that is why the UNHCR and its partners are scaling up support for shelter.
As we speak, we are supporting them in a place that is 50 kilometers away from the border areas, where the host population has agreed with the regional and federal authorities that this is the land where the refugees can be received.
The local authorities estimate that there are close to 100,000 refugees. When the government asked for the registration of the refugees, we started the registration. Close to 30,000 refugees have already started to be registered, which is the first level of registration. There will be a second and third level as well.
The local authorities seem to be short of resources. How is the pressure of supporting the refugees mostly affecting your organization? What are the supplies your organization is providing?
Our response isn’t a response in isolation. We also have partnered with other institutions in the area.
We are working in sync with the support that is being provided. It is known that there are problems like those in telecommunications, and we are trying to see how they can be improved.
Geographical access is also a problem, as is transportation. It takes two days to reach the area from Addis Ababa. Food is one of the supports we have started providing, along with kitchen sets, blankets, and several other supplies.
There doesn’t seem to be any sign of a decrease in the number of refugees and IDPs in Ethiopia. Isn’t that creating more burden for your organization?
As UNHCR, we work on the consequences of violent conflicts and work in an area that is very difficult. Ethiopia has been very generous in hosting a large number of refugees. We have also helped a lot of IDPs.
In 2020 alone, we helped over 50,000 IDPs in areas including Tigray, Afar, and Amhara. And two weeks ago, we helped 10,000 IDPs return to their homes within Afar.
The support isn’t enough. It is never enough. We have seen the number of IDPs reduced now from five million in December 2021 to about two million now. Many IDPs have spontaneously returned, with the UNHCR helping some of them.
For us, the most important thing beyond these numbers is people who are suffering. How to support some of the IDPs who have returned and how to make sure the places where they have returned are sustainable isn’t only the work of UNHCR and humanitarian actors, but also of development actors who can be supportive of investing in infrastructure, facilities, and repairing housing.
There has been a massive humanitarian crisis in Tigray during the past two years, and the government hasn’t been resourceful enough to provide support. How is your reachability there now and during the last two years?
The last two years weren’t easy. It wasn’t easy for the population of Ethiopia; it wasn’t easy even for us. But I’m glad that through the peace agreement, we are really able to go beyond those situations. I think the situation in Tigray, Amhara, and Afar is quite stable as we speak now. We don’t simply see it through the media; we live it.
We travel and see on the ground that the situation is most stable there. But at the same time, there are hotspots in Oromia Region, around Benshangul Gumuz, droughts in Borena Zone, and a few other areas. These are the situations, unfortunately. As the UNHCR, we focus on the protection and solution of the individuals; it isn’t easy, but we try our best.
In order to prevent humanitarian crises beforehand, what can your organization do before any conflict occurs?
As UNHCR, we are part of the big United Nations family. We have a secretary general who works in prevention and dialogue with people, and the UN agencies support institutions and civil society. We have other agencies that mostly work in response, but we are part of the family. What we also do is share the consequences of this.
How do you see Ethiopia’s role in becoming home to the refugees and its contribution to the work your organization does here?
Ethiopia is a leading country in refugee response. In Tigray, you can see where Ethiopia hosted the first families of Prophet Muhammad, as they couldn’t stay where they were because of religious persecution. During the conflict in the north, there were still refugees coming from South Sudan.
Despite all of that, Ethiopia has been generous, and it is well recognized. Ethiopia is also a leading member of the UNHCR. Every four years, there is a global refugee forum, and the next one will be in December 2023. Ethiopia hosted it in 2019, and Demeke Mekonnen, its deputy prime minister and foreign minister, was present. For us, Ethiopia opens its doors, even during difficult times.
How do you see the legal framework in place, which includes the Refugee Proclamation that was ratified in 2019? What are the enabling and disabling factors of the frameworks?
This proclamation replaced the one ratified in 2004, which was quite restrictive in terms of rights, freedom of movement, and access to work. The 2019 Refugee Proclamation contains greater rights for refugees. During the discussions about the proclamation, quite a lot of resources were brought to Ethiopia, not just through the UNHCR but also through the line ministries, to support the refugee hosting areas like Gambella and Somali regions.
The resources can be diverted through the Ministry of Finance to these areas in what was called a “Compliance Refugee Response Framework.” We are glad that the 2019 refugee proclamation is being implemented. Of course, when there are conflicts, it is difficult to implement all dimensions of the proclamation. We work very closely with the government’s Refugee and Returnee Service (RRS) for the full implementation of this proclamation. It was a major step forward compared with the 2004 one, and its implementation will continue.
There were talks of financial inclusion for refugees with job opportunities in manufacturing and more, but there was no implementation. What is your update on that?
We have had two years of conflict, and when you have that, it affects everyone. It will be very good that we discuss this for a few more months after the implementation of the peace agreement. There have been quite a few advances. There have also been some issues of work permits and standard operating procedures discussed and agreed upon by the Labor Ministry and RRS recently. Quite a few things had happened before, but the conflict affected them.