About 425,000 Somali refugees and asylum seekers lived in about two-dozen countries at the end of 1999: an estimated 170,000 in Ethiopia, some 160,000 in Kenya, about 50,000 in Yemen, more than 20,000 in Djibouti, 3,000 in Tanzania, nearly 3,000 in Egypt, nearly 3,000 in Libya, about 2,000 in Eritrea, 1,000 in Uganda, and some 14,000 new asylum seekers in various European countries.

An additional 20,000 Somalis lived in Yemen in refugee-like circumstances, but Yemen authorities did not officially recognize their refugee status.

An estimated 350,000 Somalis were internally displaced.

Approximately 25,000 Somali refugees repatriated during the year, primarily to northern Somalia. Tens of thousands of Somalis newly fled their homes in the southern half of the country.

Pre-1999 Events

Civil war and factional fighting have overwhelmed Somalia since 1988, causing up to a half-million deaths. Conditions were particularly severe during 1991-92, when violence and massive population displacement produced famine.

At the peak of Somalia's upheaval in 1992, an estimated 800,000 Somalis were refugees in neighboring countries and as many as 2 million people were internally displaced. Large numbers gradually returned to their home areas during 1992-98, despite continued violence and new population upheavals in some regions.

Political leaders in northern Somalia have declared autonomy from the rest of the country. Leaders in northwest Somalia, largely of the Issaq clan, named their territory Somaliland and formed their own government in the mid-1990s. Leaders in northeast Somalia followed suit in 1998 and named their autonomous region Puntland, dominated by the Darod clan. Neither Somaliland nor Puntland has independent political status in the eyes of the international community.

Peace negotiations among Somalia's fractious clans and warlords failed to produce stability in the rest of the country.

Politics and Violence in 1999

Somali society continued to struggle during the year without a central government and no visible sign of national unity.

Security conditions varied enormously in different regions of Somalia during the year. Violence and general insecurity prevailed in some areas of the country, particularly in the capital, Mogadishu, and in many southern and western regions. Other areas avoided major bloodshed during 1999, but remained dangerous and unstable. Still other regions, particularly Somaliland and Puntland in northern Somalia, were relatively safe and pursued modest reconstruction and reintegration efforts.

Somali warlords reportedly received new weapon supplies from the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea during the year, fueling new rounds of violence. War raged around the key southern towns of Kismayo and Baidoa in the first half of the year. Mogadishu suffered mortar and artillery clashes among factions. Ethiopian government troops reportedly entered western Somalia and captured several strategic towns, creating a buffer zone between the two countries to protect Ethiopia's border from potential incursions by insurgents based in Somalia.

The UN secretary general expressed concern that the international community regarded Somalia as a "'black hole' where the absence of law and order is attracting criminals and subversives."

Uprooted Somalis

A deadly combination of warfare, drought, and food shortages pushed tens of thousands of people from their homes during the year, joining hundreds of thousands of Somalis uprooted in previous years. The total number of displaced people was uncertain because insecurity impeded international aid workers' access to afflicted areas.

Violence in southwestern Somalia forced at least 50,000 persons to flee their homes in the first half of 1999, including about 20,000 who fled to Kenya and 10,000 who reportedly crossed into Ethiopia. Thousands of other families reportedly fled to Mogadishu from war-racked and drought-ridden southern regions during the year, while thousands of Mogadishu-area residents temporarily fled their homes when heavy fighting erupted in Mogadishu.

Mogadishu remained crowded with displaced families. The city contained some 230,000 internally displaced persons in 200 camps, an international aid organization estimated. Other estimates of the capital's uprooted population were somewhat lower, though still substantial.

Tens of thousands of people remained internally displaced in relatively calm Somaliland and Puntland, according to aid agencies. Thousands of residents from southern Somalia fled to northern areas, particularly to Puntland, hoping to escape Somalia by boat to Yemen. Hundreds drowned in overcrowded boats en route to Yemen. About 7,000 reached Yemen during the year.

Humanitarian Conditions

Nearly ten years of warfare and massive population displacement have worsened living conditions in an impoverished country that was already prone to cycles of droughts and flooding.

More than a million Somalis faced food shortages in 1999. Health surveys early in the year found malnutrition rates of up to 19 percent among displaced children under age five. Nutrition surveys near the southern town of Baidoa several months later recorded malnutrition rates of up to 28 percent among young children.

UNICEF speculated that as many as two of every five children were probably malnourished in some southern areas with high concentrations of uprooted families. In March, an assessment concluded that about 30,000 internally displaced people in southwestern Somalia had inadequate food, water, and sanitation.

UN humanitarian agencies warned mid-year that the food situation in many areas had become "extremely grim" and "increasingly precarious." A coalition of aid organizations concluded in July that "the overall considerably worse than earlier in the year."

UN agencies appealed to donors for $95 million to fund emergency and rehabilitation programs. The UN World Food Program provided 19,000 tons of food aid in the first ten months of the year. Aid agencies distributed 1,600 tons of seeds to encourage local food production. Somalia would require an additional 70,000 tons of food aid in the last half of 1999 and the first half of 2000, UN food experts predicted.

Displacement camp residents in Mogadishu suffered cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, pneumonia, malnutrition, and skin diseases, as well as robberies and internal clan disputes. A cholera outbreak in early 1999 killed 240 persons. Displaced families in the capital typically lived in self-made huts pieced together from sticks, paper, and cloth. Most camp residents received virtually no aid, but many benefited from a UNICEF vaccination campaign that inoculated 80,000 Somalis against measles.

International humanitarian agencies attempted to provide emergency relief where possible while simultaneously facilitating development and repatriation in the country's calm areas. Continued closure of the Mogadishu airport and sea port, as well as insecurity in many southern and western zones, posed constant obstacles to aid efforts. Mid-year violence in southern Somalia, for example, prevented ships laden with more than 5,000 tons of food from off-loading their much-needed cargo.

A coalition of humanitarian organizations complained of "a disturbing increase in banditry and general instability" that endangered aid programs. Two international relief workers and at least one prominent local humanitarian worker were killed during the year. At least two aid workers were kidnapped. As in previous years, armed thieves and militiamen periodically attacked the vehicles, buildings, and personnel of humanitarian organizations in 1999, forcing assistance agencies to evacuate temporarily from several locations.

Despite extraordinary efforts by humanitarian assistance agencies, some 1.6 million people in Somalia – including many residents of Mogadishu – remained beyond the reach of aid agencies at year's end because of insecurity, according to a UN estimate.

Repatriation of Somali Refugees

Several hundred thousand Somali refugees have repatriated during the past seven years, including about 25,000 returnees in 1999, primarily from Ethiopia and Yemen to Somaliland.

The organized repatriation program from Ethiopia to Somalia, supported by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), resumed in mid-1999 after more than six months of delays. Returnees to northern Somalia received food packages or financial subsidies to last several months. Returnees also received household items such as blankets and water containers, as well as travel allowances to reach their homes from transit centers in northern Somalia.

Northern Somalia's returnee areas received an economic boost during the year when nearby Saudi Arabia agreed to resume importing Somali livestock after deciding the animals were free of disease. UNHCR financed community projects in returnee areas to promote viable living conditions and supported long-term development projects by other aid agencies to improve economic and political stability.

UNHCR also provided special support for farming and small business projects by Somali women, based on experience indicating that aid projects targeting wives and mothers hasten reintegration for entire families.

Despite reintegration assistance, the pace of refugee return remained slow because of continued violence, fear of landmines in returnee areas, drought, and Somalia's poor economic conditions. International funding for landmine removal remained limited even though most of the country's estimated 1 million landmines were in prime returnee areas such as Somaliland.

In December, UNHCR delayed the scheduled repatriation by air of 1,000 Somali refugees from Kenya to Puntland because of disagreements between UN officials and leaders of Puntland.

UNHCR acknowledged that many Somali refugees "have limited prospects for voluntary repatriation in the short-term." The scarcity of schools, health care, electricity, and dependable water supplies particularly discouraged repatriation by educated Somalis whose return was "indispensable" for the country's reconstruction, UNHCR stated.

"The absence of a central government in Somalia continues to impede efforts to find long-term solutions for Somali refugees," UNHCR observed. "UNHCR will have to ensure the international protection and well-being of thousands of Somali refugees in exile for the foreseeable future."

In September, the U.S. government extended for an additional year temporary protected status (TPS) for many Somalis in the United States. The extension meant that qualified Somalis continued to receive temporary asylum in the United States at least until September 2000. The U.S. government has provided TPS for Somalis since 1991.


This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.