Nairobi — An estimated 50,000 asylum-seekers from Somalia have entered neighbouring Ethiopia in the past eight months, according to preliminary findings of an assessment team from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
"They are in need of food and other emergency supplies," said Millicent Mutuli, UNHCR regional spokeswoman, adding that UNHCR would work out an assistance plan with the Ethiopian government.
The Somalis, who started arriving in April 2006, are living among local communities in the southeastern zone of the Somali Region of Ethiopia. Many were forced out of Somalia by drought, floods and the recent conflict between the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).
Mutuli said the estimate was based on interviews with local authorities and elders in the border areas where the Somalis have settled. A more definitive figure would be available when UNHCR carried out refugee identification and registration with the Ethiopian government.
The three-week assessment mission visited Gode, Kelafo, Mustahil, Ferfer, Dollo Ado, Dollo Bay, Bare, Suftu, Warder, Geladin and Jijiga. Most of the Somalis they found were women, the elderly and children.
"The situation necessitates that we activate our contingency plan to provide international protection to genuine refugees as soon as screening and registration is conducted," Ilunga Ngandu, UNHCR's regional liaison representative in Ethiopia.
The agency has begun registering the new arrivals in Kebribeyah. Ethiopia already hosts 17,000 refugees from Somalia in Kebribeyah camp, near the town of Jijiga. At its peak in the early 1990s, there were 628,000 Somali refugees in eight camps in eastern Ethiopia. Since 1997, when UNHCR began repatriating refugees to Somalia's self-declared Republic of Somaliland, most of the camps have been closed.
In a related development, Kenya has urged UNHCR and the international community at large to facilitate the return of refugees to Somalia, saying the security situation in that country was improving.
Kenya, which hosts more than 160,000 Somali refugees, has been spearheading efforts to have an African peace and stabilisation force deployed in Somalia to replace Ethiopian troops who went into Somalia in December 2006 and helped the TFG defeat the UIC. Before that the UIC had seized control of most of the country and was undermining the limited authority of the interim government set up in 2004 after reconciliation talks in Kenya.
"The influx of Somali refugees due to conflicts has in the past strained Kenya's limited resources and placed a heavy burden on her safety and security," Kenya's Foreign Affairs Minister Raphael Tuju said in a statement on Thursday.
"We note, however, that the situation inside Somalia is stabilising rapidly all across the country. In this regard, we urgently call on the international community and the UNHCR to facilitate an early return and resettlement programme, including that of the internally displaced persons, as part of the post-conflict peace-building process."
Tuju called for a pledging conference for Somalia, saying it should be led by the United Nations, the World Bank and other donors. "This pledging conference will, we trust, facilitate the Transitional Federal Government's objective of consolidating the gains made so far in the reconciliation process and to secure real peace in all parts of the Republic of Somalia," he added.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]