- The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, yesterday began its first repatriation from its eastern Ethiopia camps, helping nearly 1,000 Somalilander refugees return home after up to 16 years in exile. Some 670,000 refugees have returned to peaceful Somaliland during the last decade.
On Wednesday, a massive 57-vehicle convoy took 970 refugees from Ethiopia's Aisha camp home to the Awdal province at the western-most tip of Somaliland, a non-recognised state that has kept internal peace and stability since it broke away from Somalia 13 years ago.
According to UNHCR, Aisha is the last of the camps in Ethiopia to launch repatriation convoys. Many of the refugees now returning had fled Somalia's civil war and been in exile since 1988.
- For their return, UNHCR gave the refugees a small amount of cash for transportation, as well as blankets, cooking sets, sleeping mats, tarpaulins and hygiene supplies to help them restart life at home, the UN agency reports. "Each family also received nine months' supply of food from the UN World Food Programme."
Another 1,000 Somalilander refugees are set to go home from Aisha camp next Monday, 31 May. Repatriation convoys are scheduled to continue until the end of this year, when UNHCR hopes to close Aisha camp, the UN agency said yesterday.
These returnees will join some 670,000 refugees who have gone back to Somaliland over the last 13 years, either on their own or with UNHCR assistance. This year, the agency plans to repatriate 35,000 refugees to Somalia and Somaliland, "carefully measuring the pace of returns against the desperately poor country's ability to absorb so many people."
The UN refugee agency says it has "identified Somalia" - in fact mostly signifying Somaliland - "as one of eight countries in Africa "where it expects to see "significant refugee returns over the next five years, if security remains stable and donor countries ensure adequate amounts of rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance."
- The refugees from Aisha will face difficulties after so many years in a camp, however commented the UNHCR's Simone Wolken. "But UNHCR is working together with the UN Development Programme, the International Labour Organisation and the Danish Refugee Council to see that the limited resources available are put to the best use to help the returnees become self-sufficient."
In order to help stabilise the situation inside Somaliland and to assist communities receiving returnees, UNHCR has already implemented 174 projects in the water, health, education and transport sectors over the last two years.
- These programmes have helped, along with similar projects initiated by a host of partner agencies, but Somaliland's needs are huge, the UN agency said. Several UN agencies are currently appealing for US$ 118 million to assist Somalia and Somaliland.
In order to ensure a safe return for the Somalilander refugees, a UNHCR-funded road crew recently undertook grading and spot repair works. They also ensured that the area was checked for landmines left behind from the conflict 20 years ago when Somali forces invaded eastern Ethiopia, an attack that presaged the civil war and the eventual collapse of the Siad Barre regime in Mogadishu.
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