The Horn of Africa: Somalis in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya



Throughout his 21 years in power, Mohamed Siad Barre has used the army and security agencies to destroy independent civilian institutions, to repress dissent and to maintain his hold on power. His unlimited presidential authority has resulted in benefits to himself and members of his Marehan clan but has proved ruinous for the rest of the country (The Christian Science Monitor 4 Dec. 1990, 18).

Clan-based rebel movements have evolved with the goal of ousting Siad Barre and gaining a fairer share of the country's resources and opportunities for their individual clans. In May 1988, the Issaq-based Somali National Movement (SNM) attacked the cities of Burau and Hargeisa. The Somali army responded with extreme force, resulting in 50,000 to 60,000 civilian casualties and damage to Hargeisa and Burao (The Times 18 Jan. 1990; The Christian Science Monitor 4 Dec. 1990, 18). As a result, beginning in early June 1988, 350,000 Issaqs fled to Ethiopia, while others fled to neighbouring countries and other parts of Somalia (U.S. General Accounting Office 4 May 1989, 2). People fled by the main roads on foot, by camel, and by vehicle, "ferrying the old and the sick in hand carts" (Africa Watch Committee Jan. 1990, 171; COSTI Jan. 1990). Many Somalis crossed the Somali-Djibouti border on foot, while others travelled through Ethiopia, sometimes temporarily residing in refugee camps there before making their way to Djibouti by train, truck or on foot (UNHCR Feb. 1990, 24).

More recently, the fighting has engulfed the capital, Mogadishu. On 30 December 1990, rebels, including the Hawiye clan-based United Somali Congress (USC), the group most frequently referred to by the international media, engaged government troops in hand-to-hand combat (The Associated Press 8 Jan. 1991). Somali President Siad Barre is attempting to remain in power despite fighting which has forced the evacuation of almost all foreign nationals, including Red Cross representatives (Ibid.). It is reported that 1,500 people have lost their lives and thousands more have been wounded in the fighting that has destroyed several buildings, water, electrical and communications services (The Associated Press 8 Jan. 1991). Indiscriminate killing and looting, the retaliation against government supporters (both Marehan and others perceived to be collaborators), as well as the lack of food and medicine have caused the flight of many Somalis. One report estimates that half of Mogadishu's population of 500,000 has fled south on foot while government soldiers and members of the Marehan clan have reportedly sought refuge in the west, near the town of Garba Hare (The Washington Post 7 Jan. 1991, A17). During the first week of January 1991, over 15,000 Somalis arrived in the Ogaden desert in Ethiopia (Reuters 4 Jan. 1991).


Due to the nascent state of the infrastructure for national data collection in Somalia, most citizens do not have identification cards such as birth, marriage and death certificates. The most important piece of documentation which Somalis will try to obtain is a passport, as it is required for international travel and identification purposes. The civil war of 1988 and the continued fighting have wreaked havoc on government agencies, the economy and virtually all public services, and have brought the country to a state of collapse. Civil servants go for long periods without salaries or with salaries severely diminished due to uncontrolled inflation. To make ends meet, they regularly resort to opening up government offices after hours and reportedly retain fees meant for government coffers (COSTI 9 Jan. 1991).

According to several sources, Somali passports, although generally authentic, may be obtained through unorthodox means and contain false information. For a negotiable fee, government officials reportedly will issue genuine passports with pictures and personal data supplied by applicants. These passports are then stamped and signed as official documents but in reality, they may be registered under the name and number of rejected applicants. Many people have obtained authentic passports in this continuous chain of purposely mismatched documentation (Ibid.).

Somali women reportedly slip back into Somalia from the relative safety of surrounding countries to obtain passports for themselves and family members. Chosen for this work because they are considered least likely to arouse the suspicion of border guards or soldiers, these women attempt to procure travel documents for their relatives who hope to find refuge abroad. The women carry money, personal information and pictures of members of their extended families, and approach government officials to arrange for the issuance of passports (COSTI 9 Jan. 1991; Former Director of Teacher Training, Somali Ministry of Education 14 Jan. 1991).

The United States has reportedly agreed to the issuance of visas to Somali applicants from its embassy in Mogadishu. Among the groups granted visas are those with letters of invitation from relatives residing in the U.S., those with business ties, and a large number who are on academic and military scholarships in the United States. Well-known personalities and detainees have reportedly been granted visas by proxy, whereby a relative or associate will act as a middleman and obtain the required information and signatures from those unable to visit the United States embassy personally (COSTI 9 Jan. 1991; Former Director 14 Jan. 1991). According to the United States Embassy in Ottawa, the Visa Officer at the United States Embassy in Mogadishu has the discretion to grant a visa to an applicant without interviewing him/her in person (2 Feb. 1990).

Many Somalis with relatives working in the Gulf States or living in Europe transit these regions. The majority of Somalis travel to the Gulf States where established extended family and clan members contribute the airline ticket for travel to a place of refuge, generally the U.S.A. Most Somalis reportedly learn about countries with large numbers of Somali refugees, including Canada, and the procedures for claiming refugee status, through word of mouth while in transit (COSTI 9 Jan. 1991).

Kenyan passports, reputedly easy to forge, have allegedly been sought by non-Kenyans because as members of the Commonwealth, Kenyan passport holders were not required to obtain visas to enter Canada. On 6 August 1990, the Canadian government imposed visa requirements on Kenyans in an attempt to stem the flow of passport fraud cases and "questionable refugee claims" involving Somalis (BBC Summary 18 Sept. 1989, B1; The Globe and Mail 8 Aug. 1990).

In the first week of January 1991, the government of Kenya reversed an earlier decision and agreed to grant temporary asylum to Somalis who, having fled the recent conflict in Somalia, were stranded in the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport lounge. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will be responsible for moving these Somalis which they consider to be "of concern," to a special unnamed camp to await decisions on their applications for refugee status to countries of their choice. This process, however, does not mean that these Somali asylum seekers will necessarily be determined refugees by those countries to which UNHCR submits their cases (Xinhua General News Service 7 Jan. 1991).

While some Somalis are sponsored by Islamic organizations in Canada (COSTI 9 Jan. 1991), many are sponsored by Canadian churches (Inter-Church Committee for Sponsorship of Refugees 14 Jan. 1991). Many cases of family reunification are sponsored jointly by Somali Canadian relatives and by The Canadian African Newcomers Aid Centre (CANACT), located in Toronto (COSTI 9 Jan. 1991). The Working Group on Refugee Resettlement also sponsors Somali refugees referred to them by UNHCR, Canada Employment and Immigration Commission (CEIC), Amnesty International and a limited number of private individuals. These Somalis come from many parts of the world, particularly Ethiopia, Kenya and Egypt (Working Group on Refugee Resettlement 15 Jan. 1991).

3.                THE CAMPS

3.0             General

Because of the arduous journey undertaken by Somalis fleeing civil war and aerial shelling by the Somali military, many are physically sick, exhausted and suffering from malnutrition and psychological trauma upon arrival in a country of asylum (COSTI 9 Jan. 1991). The present situation is more acute because these urban refugees are not physically capable of surviving a four or five-day trek without food and water.

According to UNHCR in Ottawa (11 Jan. 1991), there are currently no refugee camps in Djibouti or in Kenya. Several UNHCR-operated refugee camps exist in Ethiopia, where Somalis as a group are recognized as refugees.

3.1.       Djibouti

The initially sympathetic attitude of the government of Djibouti during the 1970s has become one of frustration at the continuing burden of refugee assistance in a country with 60 percent inflation (U.S. Committee for Refugees Jan. 1988, 26). Refugees and illegal immigrants, often seen as one and the same by the government, the media and the general public, have been held responsible for the rising crime rate, unemployment, deteriorating government services and other social problems (ICMC 1987, 26). Fear of being recognized as foreigners keeps many refugees from utilizing government services such as schools and health clinics (Ibid.).

The government of Djibouti has taken steps aimed at discouraging refugees from entering the country. The first step was to declare that permanent resettlement is not an option, stressing that "there is no room for matter how small the number" (UNHCR Feb. 1990, 27). For this reason, the government has refused to establish refugee camps. The government routinely orders round-ups of those people thought to be illegal aliens; some have been deported as a result (Country Reports 1989 1990, 101). The Somali-Djibouti border has been closed since May 1989, thus preventing access by road into Djibouti (BBC Summary 6 Jan. 1990, B1). Demonstrations against the strict application of the Convention definition and the denial of refugee status to those who could not individually prove "persecution" have also been reported (U.S. Committee for Refugees 1988, 30-31).

The Director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees reports that there are about 30,000 Somali refugees in Djibouti who do not receive any humanitarian, government or UNHCR assistance. Beginning in May 1988, they entered Djibouti in an effort to escape the indiscriminate killing of civilians in Somalia. The refugees survive by means of an underground existence and with the assistance of friends and relatives (The Washington Post 29 Aug. 1989, A12). The government of Djibouti regards Somalis on its territory as "externally displaced persons," not as refugees. Nevertheless, due to the continuing conflict in Somalia, the government of Djibouti appealed to the UNHCR to assist Somalis in 1989 (UNHCR Feb. 1990, 24-25). The government of Djibouti received US $114,000 in refugee aid from the European Community (EC) in April 1990 (Xinhua General News Service 19 Apr. 1990). As long as Somalis in Djibouti lack formal recognition as refugees, however, UNHCR's role in seeking solutions will remain limited (UNHCR Feb. 1990, 26).

3.2.     Kenya

The number of recognized Somali refugees in Kenya at the present time is unknown. Refugee claimants are housed in Thika, a centre near Nairobi where they remain for an average of six weeks awaiting their hearings. Those granted refugee status move to the urban centres while the rest are deported (UNHCR 11 Jan. 1991). More than 5,000 Somalis crossed into Kenya after rebels of the Somali Patriotic Movement clashed with Somali government troops in mid-August 1989. According to The Guardian (25 Aug. 1989), the government of Kenya:

has maintained that it requires no assistance in caring for the refugees..., [and] making a distinction between refugees and displaced persons, clearly hopes that the Somalis who have crossed into Kenya will return voluntarily as soon as the fighting in the south subsides.

After providing food, shelter and medical assistance, the Kenyan government denied these Somalis access to the Kenyan Red Cross and UNHCR and, within a week, demanded that they return to Somalia. Local Kenyan administration police were reported to have beaten the refugees in an attempt to return them to Somalia en masse. Several Somalis reportedly died in Liboi from lack of medical attention to their gunshot wounds and illnesses, while many more dispersed into the interior in search of food and safety (Africa Watch Committee 17 Nov. 1989, 3). A source confirms that in early October 1989, several Somalis fleeing the war in Somalia were forcibly returned by Kenyan border guards. The same source observes that "the UNHCR is unable to press the Kenyan government into accepting and caring for refugees from Somalia" (The Independent 10 Oct. 1989).

3.3.        Ethiopia

Refugees have been arriving in Ethiopia since the civil war erupted in May 1988. The number of Somali refugees in Ethiopia was reported to be 355,000 as of December 1990, 30,000 of whom arrived in the first quarter of 1990 (Reuters 18 May 1990). The six Somali refugee camps, all open, are located in the "barren and remote" region of eastern Ethiopia (UNHCR Dec. 1990, 10). UNHCR May 1990 refugee camp figures indicate that there were 162,000 Somali refugees in Hartishiek A, 51,000 in Hartishiek B, 20,000 in Rabasso, 46,000 in Kamabokar (Cam Aboker), 43,000 in Daror and 8,000 in Aisha (UNHCR May 1990, 2).

Hartishiek B was constructed in 1989 and upon completion, about 22,000 Somali refugees were transferred there from a makeshift transit camp called Harshin (UNHCR 6 Apr. 1990). The three camps in the Aware region - Kamabokar (Cam Aboker), Rabasso and Daror - were set up temporarily to bring together refugees scattered in different locations. The refugees who rejected the planned transfer to Hartishiek B for ethnic reasons are reported to face continual hardships due to lack of water (UNHCR Feb. 1990, 30).

Initially, the UNHCR, unable to cope with the overwhelming numbers of Somali refugees, was criticized for failing to provide sufficient food, shelter and medication quickly enough. Officials had difficulty in distinguishing between Somali refugees and the local ethnic Somali population in the area of the camps. As a result, many families from both groups acquired multiple ration cards at the expense of others. This situation has now improved: re-registration of refugees in August 1989 led to the introduction of a more equitable food distribution system (UNHCR May 1990, 2). Proper roads and trucks, however, are not always available to ensure the timely distribution of food to all the refugees in the camps. Water also has to be trucked in from wells up to 50 miles away (The Christian Science Monitor 16 Aug. 1989, 6). While camp life is idle for some, others have opened small retail shops in a thriving market near Hartisheik camp. There is also a great deal of travel between the other camps and villages (The Christian Science Monitor 16 Aug. 1989, 6).

Not all Somalis who have fled their country live in refugee camps. About 70,000 Somalis who fled the fighting in southern Somalia in late 1989, currently "[live] under the trees" in the isolated southern Ethiopian villages of Mustahil, Hananweyle and Oud and are not receiving any assistance from the international community (The Toronto Star 9 Sept. 1990).

Somali refugees, determined to be refugees by virtue of their presence in UNHCR-operated camps in Ethiopia, may apply for United Nations travel documents. These are issued by the Immigration Department of the Ethiopian Ministry of Internal Affairs (UNHCR 11 Jan. 1991). Representatives from countries of asylum enter the camps to interview refugees seeking resettlement abroad. The Ethiopian government also sends its representatives to the camps to register Somali refugees who have been accepted by resettlement countries. It is at this point that the Ethiopian Immigration Department will issue Convention travel documents (UNHCR 21 Jan. 1991).


The UNHCR office in Ottawa reports that "there are no voluntary repatriation programmes for Somalis from any country at the current time" (UNHCR 11 Jan. 1991). Amnesty International reports that an unsuccessful asylum applicant, returned to Somalia in 1987, was imprisoned and reportedly tortured. This prisoner alleges that he heard of about 20 other prisoners arrested and given prison sentences of three to 15 years for having sought asylum in other countries (Amnesty International, AI Index: AFR/52/26/88, 11-12). According to several sources, the act of applying for asylum and thereby notifying the international community of Somalia's human rights violations, is viewed as unpatriotic and treasonous by the Somali government (COSTI 9 Jan. 1991; Former Director 14 Jan. 1991).

In August 1988, five cadets undergoing military training in Egypt were forcibly returned to Somalia after they had sought asylum in the UNHCR office in Cairo. They were arrested on arrival in Mogadishu and held in detention until their release under the general amnesty announced in early 1989 (Amnesty International 1990, 211). Not only Somali refugees but other Somalis who reside abroad illegally have reportedly been arrested and extrajudicially executed upon being forcibly returned to Somalia. This was the case when eight Somalis were forcibly returned from Saudi Arabia in 1988 (Amnesty International 1989, 84).

Of the 60 Somalis who were forcibly returned to Somalia from Liboi, Kenya, 15 to 18 were reportedly executed in Doble by Somali soldiers and 42 were imprisoned in Kismayo (The Africa Watch Committee 17 Nov. 1989, 3; Amnesty International 1990, 212). Somali women who return to Somalia to obtain documents run the risk of being beaten, raped, imprisoned or even killed. Government authorities in each area have discretionary power in meting out punishment in these cases (Director, Clinical Psychology Community Programme, Boston University 14 Jan. 1991).

5.        MAP

See original

6.              BIBLIOGRAPHY

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