10 October 2006

Somalia: Country Enduring Twin Refugee Crises, Warns UN Agency

The United Nations refugee agency warned today of dual crises emerging in Somalia, with several thousand people joining the flood across the border into Kenya to escape fighting in the south and the deportation of as many as 1,800 others from the northeast of the war-torn African country.

More than 2,000 people have arrived in Kenya since last Friday, overwhelming reception and screening facilities there, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told a news briefing in Geneva.

She said at least 1,300 refugees yesterday jammed a temporary reception centre set up by UNHCR on the Kenyan-Somali border, adding to the 30,000 Somalis who have already crossed into Kenya so far this year.

The refugees are fleeing fighting between the Transitional Federal Government and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which are contesting control of Buur Hakaba, a strategic town between Baidoa, where the Government is based, and the capital Mogadishu, which is held by the ICU.

Elders from Dobley, a Somali town close to the border with Kenya, have told senior UN staff operating in the country that they are aware of another 3,000 or 4,000 people en route to the border.

Three refugee camps established in Dadaab in Kenya now house 157,000 people, Ms. Pagonis said.

At the opposite end of the impoverished country, which has not had a functioning national government since warlords drove the regime of President Muhammad Siad Barre from power in 1991, local authorities in the northeast have deported or plan to deport as many as 1,800 people since the weekend.

UN agencies and other organizations working in the port city of Bossasso have requested Somali authorities temporarily suspend the deportations until UNHCR can determine if there are any asylum-seekers who might have been wrongly included.

Ms. Pagonis said the agency has received reports that 1,300 Ethiopian migrants were deported on Sunday, and another 500 others are being held in a mosque awaiting deportation.

Hundreds of internally displaced Somalis are also being arrested and detained and sent back to southern and central Somalia, where the fighting and unrest is much fiercer.

Ms. Pagonis said the actions seem to be the result of a decree issued late last month by the president of the self-declared autonomous region of Puntland, aimed at halting the annual people-smuggling season across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. So far at least 54 people have died attempting to make the voyage.

She stressed that while any country has a right to deport illegal immigrants, authorities must ensure those being returned would not have their lives or freedom threatened if sent back to their country of origin.

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