The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says it is close to shutting down the Hartisheik refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia. Hartisheik was once the biggest refugee camp in the world, at one time housing 600,000 Somalis.
U.N. refugee agency spokesman Peter Kessler says the imminent closure of the Hartisheik refugee camp is a real milestone for the history of the Horn of Africa.
"We have seen the number of refugees in Ethiopia go from 600,000 Somalis down to about 25,000," he said. "[We have seen] Hartisheik, which was once the world's dateline of hunger, disaster, emaciation and death, shrink down to a small village of some 1,700 remaining refugees. So, this is the beginning of the end for this long saga for the people of northwest Somalia."
Mr. Kessler says some of the refugees have been living in exile for 15 years.
Hartisheik camp was established in 1988 to shelter Somali refugees fleeing to Ethiopia. They were running from Somaliland's war of secession that had erupted earlier that year. By the time the government of Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre collapsed in 1992, more than 600,000 Somalis had fled to eastern Ethiopia. The refugees faced appalling conditions in this remote semi-arid region, and many died.
Mr. Kessler says a group of 205 Somalis were transported home on Thursday. He says the voluntary repatriation program is being suspended until after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
"We hope, following end of Ramadan later in November, to organize the final convoys for the some 1,700 people that remain," said Peter Kessler. "Of course, albeit with the support of the Somaliland authorities, who need to facilitate the availability of housing and land for these people."
In addition to the 1,700 refugees remaining in Hartisheik, another 23,000 Somalis are living in two other camps in the region. Mr. Kessler says the U.N. refugee agency will soon start registering refugees at those sites for the voluntary repatriation program.