October 31, 2011
Kenya's military offensive against Islamic extremists in southern Somalia is sparking concern about a fresh exodus of Somali refugees to camps in Ethiopia.
The rainy season has arrived in most of the Horn of Africa, raising hopes for an end to the drought that destroyed the last few harvests, triggering famine in Somalia.
Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have already fled the famine zone to camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.
The reception center at the Dollo Ado, Ethiopia, camp receives hundreds of refugees a day.
Anne Laako of the United Nations refugee agency helps to register the new arrivals.
She says there is a new category of refugee joining the families with malnourished children. They are mostly men, escaping al-Shabab, the militant group that has imposed its extreme vision of Islam on southern Somalia.
"It's not only the drought and famine but it's restrictions of movement by al-Shabab, and those combined. It's more difficult to move to where they used to move in order to get food and in order to get water and these things," Laako said.
Samuel Emmanuel of Ethiopia's refugee agency ARRA is coordinator of Hilaweyn camp, one of four facilities housing 130,000 refugees in the Dollo Ado complex.
He says construction has begun on another camp as fresh fighting forces more Somalis to flee what is becoming both a famine zone and a war zone.
"At this time the situation in Somalia is going from bad to worst. Al-Shabab is creating a drought disaster, and we are about to open a 5th camp due to the influx which is coming from Somalia," Emmanuel stated.
Ibrahim Ismael Haji fled southern Somalia a month ago with his wife and nine children.
They chose life as refugees not because of the famine, but to escape al-Shabab's harsh brand of Islamic Sharia law.
"People have a lot to be scared of from al-Shabab, things like beatings and beheadings. My family will have to accept life as refugees until Somalia is safe again," Haji said.
Mohamed Aden Osman arrived in Dollo Ado just this week. The 22-year old tells of a hazardous nine-day journey to the border, during which he was captured by al-Shabab and held for 48 hours. "Boys my age are just what al-Shabab is looking for. I was only freed after lying my captors," he said. "Promising I would go back home."
UNHCR's Anne Laakko says after a long day of interviewing new arrivals, she tries to imagine how bad conditions must be in Somalia if people are choosing to give up their homes for the boredom and harsh conditions of a refugee camp.
"It's difficult to stop thinking about it. I'm constantly thinking about it, and how the people are after they registered here, and if it's any better for them here than it is back home. And it is a very desperate situation," she said. "Here they [have] access [to] basic services but it's still a very difficult life."
Whether they are fleeing famine or fighting, the half million Somalis now in camps in Kenya and Ethiopia know that barring any unforeseen breakthrough, life as a refugee is their lot for the foreseeable future.