Global Policy Forum

Somalia Is Worst Humanitarian Crisis, UN Official


By Emma Batha

January 30, 2008

Somalia is the world's most urgent humanitarian crisis - worse even than Darfur, a senior U.N. refugee official said this week. More than 1 million people have been uprooted from their homes in Somalia, which is convulsed in fighting between Islamist insurgents, assorted warlords and allied Somali-Ethiopian troops.

The violence makes it very difficult to provide aid, as underlined by a bomb attack on Monday that killed three aid workers. "I've never seen anything like Somalia before," said Guillermo Bettocchi, country representative for the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR. "The situation is very severe. It is the most pressing humanitarian emergency in the world today - even worse than Darfur."

Although fighting in western Sudan's Darfur region has uprooted an estimated 2.5 million people, levels of malnutrition in Somalia are higher and access to aid more difficult, Bettocchi said.

Fifteen percent of the population suffers acute malnutrition and the rate has been constant for years. Health services are very limited and sanitation, water and shelters are poor. Delivering aid to people in Somalia is three times more expensive than in other crises, said Bettocchi, who has spent 19 years working on refugee emergencies throughout the world. Poor security means supplies have to be flown in to Mogadishu and transported to other parts of the country in armoured vehicles with armed escorts.


The aid workers who died this week were with Medecins Sans Frontieres. They were killed by a roadside bomb in the southern port town of Kismayu, 500 km (300 miles) south of Mogadishu. "This is just another example of the way the insurgents are trying to destabilise the whole country," Bettocchi said. "Those who will suffer the consequences are the people."

He said Kismayu was already a no-go area for U.N. and many other international agencies and the attack meant the U.N. security department would be even more reluctant now to allow missions in the area. UNHCR says 700,000 people fled fighting in Mogadishu last year, but Bettocchi said those still in the city had not remained out of choice.

"Those who have stayed are those who cannot move. They are the most vulnerable - the handicapped, the elderly or those who cannot afford to pay a donkey cart," said Bettocchi, who experienced the violence first-hand when he was caught up in a rocket and mortar attack on Mogadishu airport in 2006. Mogadishu is so dangerous that Bettocchi runs UNHCR projects "by remote control" from neighbouring Kenya.

But the political and ethnic violence that erupted there last month has made operations more difficult. Flights have been cancelled, transportation of goods from the Kenyan port Mombasa has been affected and the price of fuel has gone up.


Bettocchi called on the international community to put more pressure on all the parties behind the fighting in Somalia to find a political solution. He said the U.N. secretary-general's special envoy to Somalia had called on Saudi Arabia to play an active role in mediating in the conflict on the grounds it might have some clout with the insurgents.

Islamist militia calling themselves the Islamic Courts Council temporarily wrested control of the capital and other parts of Somalia in 2006. When they first emerged, Bettocchi said they attracted sympathy from Somali people who thought they would provide a way out of the anarchy and violence created by the warlords. But Bettocchi said they has lost support, not least when they banned TV broadcasts of the World Cup - a move that left many Somalis wondering what they were getting themselves into. "Somali people are tired of conflict, are tired of suffering and would like to see peace and security established," he said.

Bettocchi said any political dialogue would require the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops but that security needed to be improved before they could pull out. The African Union wants to boost its peacekeeping presence to 8,000 but has struggled to get African nations to contribute soldiers.

More Information on the Security Council
More Information on Somalia
More Information on International Aid


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