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US Congressional Panel Targets Horn of Africa Crisis

Cindy Saine

A House of Representatives panel is calling on all U.S. lawmakers to remain focused on the continuing food, refugee and humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa.

At Thursday's hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, held jointly with the House Hunger Caucus, Obama administration officials testified that the United States has made a difference in the region, but that there still are millions of people who urgently need assistance.

Committee Co-Chairman Representative James McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said that although the United Nations declared last month that there is no longer famine in Somalia, the crisis in the region is far from over.

"As a result of the combination of war and hunger, some 2.5 million Somalis have migrated within Somalia or to a neighboring country in search of security and food. This extraordinary movement of desperate people has created an extraordinary refugee crisis in the region," he said.

Nancy Lindborg of the U.S. Agency for International Development said the United States reacted quickly to early warning signs of famine and has led international efforts in the horn of Africa, contributing $935 million to the region during the crisis.

"Really the top line in the face of one of the worst droughts in 60 years, we mobilized and we made a difference," she said.

Lindborg and the other Obama administration officials who testified called for continued focus and assistance to the region, saying the refugee crisis in the Horn of Africa remains one of the most severe in the world.

Margaret McKelvey, director of the Office of Assistance for Africa at the State Department, said that getting neighboring countries to continue to accept refugees is a challenge.

"I think, though, the greatest challenge we face in the region is maintaining first asylum for refugees," said McKelvey. "For example, Djibouti continues to be reluctant to accept military-age Somali males."

McKelvey said Kenya continues to push for humanitarian zones inside so-called "liberated" areas of Somalia to accommodate refugees, but added that many Somalis still need to leave the country to find a place where they are protected from violence.

Deborah Malac, director of the Office of East African Affairs at the State Department, acknowledged that drought in the region might have sparked the scarcity of food, but laid much of the blame for the suffering of Somalis on extremist militants.

"It was al-Shabab's actions in the areas of Somalia that it controls that turned this emergency into a full-blown humanitarian crisis," she said. "Years of conflict and instability have broken down the resiliency of most southern Somali communities."

Al-Shabab is fighting Somalia's transitional government in an attempt to impose its strict version of Islamic law on the country. The group has blocked relief agencies from providing food to many in hunger-stricken areas.

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