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UN to Address Mounting Humanitarian Concerns, Security Challenges Facing Somali Refugees

One week after international donors pledged more than $200 million, primarily toward security needs of a new government in Somalia, UN officials are expected to address the humanitarian response to Somalia’s refugee crisis. In London Friday, they will discuss what is needed inside the country and in surrounding areas to promote stability and improve conditions for more than 260-thousand residents who have fled to overcrowded camps in northeastern Kenya. Colin Thomas-Jensen, the Africa advocacy and research manager for the Washington-based Enough Project, points out that much of the international donor support pledged last week at the donor conference in Brussels, Belgium will go toward strengthening African Union (AU) peacekeepers in Somalia, but that the rest of the donated funds should be disbursed very carefully.

“Nearly $150 million is going to support AMISOM (African Union peacekeepers in Somalia), particularly the immense cost of maintaining a peacekeeping mission in perhaps the most difficult operating environment in the world, but also ramping up efforts by the African Union to train the Somali government security forces. And I think that’s a good thing. There’s also about $30 million that’s going straight to the TFG (Transitional Federal Government), and I think this is the money that we have to be very careful about. In particular, this money should not be used to pay salaries of security forces. The TFG is earning money now at the port. And the last thing we need, which was the case the last time, is international funding supporting a security force that more likely than not is going to commit terrible atrocities,” he advised.

Thomas-Jensen says he believes that after 17 years of failed leadership, the non-security-designated donor funds for Somalia should be conditioned on helping the Mogadishu government of President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed become a credible and inclusive body that can achieve legitimacy with its Islamist rivals and among the general public.

“The issue of simply providing money to the greatest strongman in Somalia in the hopes that he will exert control militarily over the country has failed miserably time and time again. And so direct support to this government ought to be conditioned very heavily on the behavior of security forces and the political moves that Sheikh Sharif makes to make his government a more inclusive body,” he notes.

The election of President Sheikh Sharif in January has failed to slow the exodus of Somalis seeking refuge in neighboring Kenya. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that so far in 2009, more than 23,000 new asylum seekers have crossed the border into northeastern Kenya’s Dadaab refigee camp, making it the world’s largest. Thomas-Jensen does not see many refugees ready to return to Somalia under current conditions. He says it will take time for Sheikh Sharif’s government to upgrade its handling of the security situation, particularly against attacks by immoderate, extremist Islamist factions to convince the departees to return to their homes.

“At this point, I doubt we’re going to see any sort of mass movement of refugees and IDP’s (internally displaced persons) from camps both in Kenya and inside Somalia back to their areas of origin until there’s a proven track record by the TFG and Sheikh Sharif that he can provide some basic security in Mogadishu and its surrounds. That is the core issue in Somalia right now: how to build the political coalition under the umbrella of the TFG, and how to establish a professional, credible security force that is responsible to the political actors in the TFG that can provide security for civilians,” he said.

The recent return to Mogadishu of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who headed Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union regime three years ago, poses an additional challenge to the current government. Thomas-Jensen says the radical cleric, who controlled the Somali capital between June and December, 2006, will most likely try to regain influence in Somalia by using the presence of AMISOM and the international funding it receives to portray his rival Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as a puppet and tool of western and international interests.

“I think Sheikh Aweys’ presence in the Somali capital is an indication, one, that he wants to be a player. He sees an opportunity here to try to carve out some political space for himself to make a run at a greater role. And whether it’s in the TFG or of the armed opposition. But I think it’s really too early to tell at this point exactly how his presence in Mogadishu is going to play out and whether or not he stays there for an extended period of time or if he returns to Eritrea,” notes Thomas-Jensen.

As humanitarian agencies work to help the current government build a capacity to deliver health services, clean water, education, and food assistance to make refugees feel safe and confident enough to return home, UN authorities and aid agencies also are being forced to tackle other humanitarian challenges in Somalia. Friday’s meeting in London is expected to address factors such as danger on the high seas from piracy, Somalis who put themselves in peril attempting to cross the Gulf of Aden to Yemen in unsafe vessels, and unfortunate asylum seekers who are forcibly rejected by Kenyan border authorities and returned to destitute circumstances on the Somali side of the border.

On the issue of forcible return, the Enough Project’s Colin Thomas-Jensen suggests that international authorities need to send a clear message to the Nairobi government “from the highest level, both from the United Nations and from countries that have influence,” particularly the United States, that it is unacceptable to be relocating refugees by forcible return and in fact, is a violation of international law.