There are two million refugees in Somalia; 1,316,845 refugees had officially registered as of 1 March 1981 in the thirty-plus camps in the country. An estimated 500,000-700,000 people have crossed the border and are attempting to survive on their own. Ninety percent of the refugees are women and children. The status of the men and their herds is unknown. Refugees continue to arrive at the rate of 4,500 per day (March, 1981). Most of those entering the transit camps on the border have walked for days without sufficient food or water. Sheila Schwartz, Director of Save the Children's Somali Refugee Project, returned in March from a one-month's survey of the camps. Although she has had three years experience with Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees, she describes the Somali situation as "the worst of all."

Somalia is providing asylum to the largest number of refugees of any country in the world. This has placed an enormous burden on that country, variously reckoned as the world's 8th or 10th poorest. For the first year, until October 1979, Somalia supported the refugees on its own. This later proved impossible in a nation whose per capita income is 110 US dollars per year, and the Somali Republic turned to the international community for support.

In 1980, the UNHCR requested and received $0.7 million in non-food items and 160,000 metric tons of food. For 1981, the World Food Program estimated that nearly twice as much food (280,000 MT) would be required, but in March the amount pledged was 100,000 tons short. Food reserves for the entire nation of Somalia have been reduced to a 10 day supply; experts consider a 45 day supply the minimum for avoiding disaster. On April 9-10, Kurt Waldheim convened a UN-sponsored international conference in Geneva to call attention to the problems of Somalia and the rest of Africa.

The problem of refugees in Somalia is only the epicenter of an emergency which threatens an estimated 15,000,000 East Africans. Although drought has triggered the immediate crisis in many areas, there are many additional factors: war and political turmoil, inflation following OPEC petroleum price increases, a shift from food crop production to cash crops to meet balance of payment deficits, and, of course, population increase. The following examples suggest the scope of the present crisis in East Africa:

Djibouti, 130,000 'Afar (often called Danakil) pastoralists have lost their herds to drought. A smaller number of 'Issa Somali have turned up in the city of Djibouti as refugees. Thus, over one-third of the nation's population are refugees from Ethiopia. Another 42,000 'Afar have fled Ethiopia. April rains may have broken the drought, but they also destroyed many refugee shelters.

Kenya. Drought in the Lake Turkana region threatens at least 20,000 Turkana, Rendille, and Gobra pastoralists; until recently, Kenya has not publicized the problem. Kenya's long-term problem is population growth. Kenya's population is expected to double in the next seventeen years, without a commensurate increase in food production.

Sudan. The Sudan hosts 500,000 refugees from Zaire, Uganda, and Ethiopia. Of these, 300,000 are political refugees from Eritrea, and the Tigre Province in Ethiopia. Since some of these camps have been established for years, they illustrate the problems which arise when refugee encampments become semi-permanent marginal populations. Unlike most East African refugees, many Eritreans have urban experience and skills. To the extent possible, the Eritreans have staffed schools and taught industrial and clerical skills to their youth. However, the Eritreans in the Sudan are an excess population, and their aspirations are largely met with frustration. Their camps are seen by many Sudanese as sources of criminals and prostitutes.

Uganda, Political turmoil and drought have combined to devastate the people of northern Uganda. Bands of well-armed remnants of Idi Amin's army have pillaged entire regions.

Ethiopia. Two and one-half million citizens of Ethiopia, about ten percent of its population, have crossed into neighboring countries. As well as the Somali, Eritrean, Tigre, and 'Afar refugees already mentioned, there are increasing thousands of Oromo (misnamed "Galla") refugees. Ethiopia has established some camps on the Somali border, but the conditions and extent of these are difficult to ascertain.

Keeping the refugees alive is the problem of immediate and overwhelming urgency. In Somalia, thirty refugee camps had been established by February 1981, and more were planned. These are staffed and run by twenty-seven voluntary agencies from thirteen countries, in cooperation with the government. The UNHCR coordinates the administration and logistics of this complex operation. It is not surprising that problems have arisen. Between 30 and 60 percent of the grain supplies are "lost" at the docks. Logistical failures include truck breakdowns, inadequate repair facilities, fuel shortages by the Iran-Iraq war, and irregular supplies or materials. In the Karimoja relief effort in Uganda, supply lines were so erratic, that OXFAM and Save the Children demanded that UNICEF take over UNHCR duties.

Conditions in the camps are adequate to maintain life, at best. Hunger, thirst, and disease are chronic. The adult allotment of food is 1,300 calories per day, most as corn or wheat flour. Water, which is often trucked, has been rationed severely at times. Since firewood is in extremely short supply, the boiling of drinking water is often neglected, resulting in widespread dysentery. Tuberculosis is particularly prevalent among children, with up to 60% testing positive. The UNHCR reckons a minimum need of three nurses for each 40,000 refugees to cope with disease, as opposed to nutritional, problems. On 1 February 1981, there was about one-third the required number of nurses in the camps.

Schwartz summed up the problems which define and constrain the refugee support effort.

There are six factors involved: First, there has been a thirty-year drought. Second, the unsolved war between Ethiopia and Somalia. Third, the arrival of thousands of new refugees each day. Fourth, the poverty of the Somali government, with the consequent need to import almost all refugee needs. Fifth, the political battles of the superpowers and their effects on the vulnerable populations of Ethiopia and Somalia. Additionally she cited the shortage of and increase in price of petroleum products.

The future of the refugees is impossible to forecast. International relief efforts cannot be expected to continue at the same level for any extended period. Given the number of refugees and the fragility of the supply lines, massive death is still a possibility.

Two rather simple scenarios can be envisaged for these people. Either they will return to Ethiopia or they will remain in Somalia. If they are to return, a series of problems must be solved, the foremost of which is political. At present there is neither any indication of such a solution, nor evidence that creative minds outside the countries concerned have offered much of significance in the way of plans for negotiations. As long as there are men devoted to the guerrilla war against Ethiopia, and as long as those ruling Ethiopia continue to identify other ethnic groups as the enemy, a political solution will be difficult to achieve. For the near future, and probably for much longer, the majority of the two million refugees now in Somalia will remain there. What is to become of them?

The Somali Republic has been encouraging segments of its pastoral population to switch to agriculture, and perhaps some refugees can be thus resettled. The governmental has also attempted to place small numbers of the refugees in its nascent fishing industry. But those plans are far from fulfillment.

Some of the voluntary agencies include community development plans under their goal statements, but their immediate task of keeping life-lines open occupies most of their time and money. In the best of all possible worlds, the present efforts to dig wells in the regions of the refugee camps would provide enough water to develop irrigation systems. But knowledge of he region preclude this on a widespread basis. None of the present plans, in short, seems to offer the scale of solution needed.

There are those who feel refugee relief is a false promise, that it would be better not to tamper with starvation as a solution to famine. However, if the promise of life is extended through emergency relief measures, is there not a consequent ethical responsibility, for those who have intervened, to follow through with development assistance. James Harkin noted the "Awful Irony" in famine relief:

The fire-brigade approach [to African famine relief] focuses on the immediate problems, each time stated in more outrageous terms, as a tactic to generate maximum food aid. The unfortunate result is to miss the opportunity to address the underlying cases.

Without action based on an understanding of these underlying causes, he predicts, in the near future a pandemic African famine may kill millions.

Those who feel that basic humanitarianism demands that starving refugees be fed, rather than being allowed to die in a sort of mass euthanasia, should nonetheless heed Harkin's warnings. In the Somali context, food and medicine are not sufficient. Plans for the future of the refugee population must be urgently made and brought to fruition with the necessary financial backing. If no such plans forthcoming, the Somali refugee camps will gradually become centers of containment, otherwise known as concentration camps.

In the greater context, if the problems of refugee populations are not solved here, there will be no guiding theory or framework when the next wave of refugees appears elsewhere. And above all, we need to explore those underlying causes of famine and to finally do something about them. It would be an ineradicable shame if two million refugees were forced to die of neglect or to languish in desolation while others watched and did nothing.

REFUGEES IN AFRICA - 1970 & 1981

COUNTRY OF ASYLUM 1970(1) 1981(2)

Number Origin Number Origin

ALGERIA, 3,290 Europe 52,500 Western 49,500(3)

MOROCCCO, Latin Sahara

TUNISIA America Europe

African Latin 3,000

students America



ANGOLA(4) 4,500 Zambia 4,500 73,000 Zaire


South Africa

BOTSWANA(5) 4,200 Angola 4,000 3,400 South African




Namibia 200



BURUNDI(6) 46,000 Zaire 10,000 234,590 Rwanda

CAMEROON(7) 26,600 Chad

Equatorial Guinea

CENTRAL AFRICAN 27,500 Chad 1,500 7,000 Chad 7,000

REPUBLIC Zaire 5,000

Sudan 21,000

CHAD(8) 42,000 Eritrea- 21,000


Ogaden- 21,000


EGYPT 8,300 Palestine 3,000 5,000 Europe 400

Middle 4,800 Ethiopia (most of

East & the rest


South 500


ETHIOPIA(9) 90,031 Mozambique 11 11,000 Sudan

Somalia 70,000

Sudan 20,000

South 30


GABON 30,000 Equatorial 30,000


GAMBIA(10) 5,000 Portuguese 5,000


GHANA 200 South Africa 200

GUINEA(11) 15,000 Portuguese 15,000


KENYA(12) 735 Rwanda 50 3,500 Uganda 1,500

South 450 Ethiopia

Africa Rwanda

Sudan 200

Zaire 35

LESOTHO 400 South 10,000 South Africa


MALAWI(13) 15,030 South 30


Mozambique 15,000

MOZAMBIQUE(14) 100 South Africa

NIGERIA(15) 110,000 Chad 104,920

South Africa

RWANDA(6) 12,500 Burundi 12,500 10,150 Burundi


SENEGAL 68,000 Portuguese 68,000 5,000 Various Countries


SOMALIA(16) 1,540,000 Eritrea-Ethiopia



SUDAN(17) 55,000 Zaire 6,500 49,000 Ethiopia

Eritrea- 48,000 Uganda

Ethiopia 500 Zaire

Chad Chad

SWAZILAND 92 South 10,000 South Africa 10,000



TANZANIA(18) 57,645 Malawi 600 140,000 Burundi 130,000

Rhodesia 20 Zaire

Rwanda 13,500 Malawi

Sudan 25 South Africa

Mozambique 43,500

UGANDA(19) 177,000 Zaire 34,500 112,400 Rwanda 78,000

Rwanda 71,000 Zaire 34,000

Sudan 71,500 Other 400

ZAIRE(20) 669,000 Angola 553,000 400,000 Angola 215,000

Haiti 2,000 Uganda 100,000

Rwanda 24,000 Burundi 11,000

Sudan 75,000 Rwanda 22,000

Zambia 15,000 Zambia 1,800

ZAMBIA(21) 14,350 Angola 10,000 33,500 Angola 18,000

Mozambique 4,000 Zaire 5,000

South 350 Namibia

Africa & South Africa



OTHERS 2,500 South 30,000 South Africa

Africa Other

DISPLACED 700,000 1,675,000


(1) United States Committee for Refugees "World Refugee Report," 1972 Annual Survey Issue. N.Y. 1972:3-4. Based on information supplied by Catholic Relief Services, International University Exchange Fund, International Organization for Rural Development, Office of Refugee and Migration Affairs - U.S. Dept. of State, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Missions (various countries), United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, United States Committee for Refugees.

(2) International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA), Refugees in Africa: A Country by Country Survey, Geneva, 9-10 April 1981. 23 pp.

(3) Nearly all refugees from Western Sahara live in Algeria.

(4) In the seventies 1 million Angolan refugees were reported in Zaire and Congo. In 1979-80, 100,000 Angolans were repatriated from Zaire while 18,000 decided to remain there.

(5) In 1979, 96% of the 23,000 refugees in Botswana were from Zimbabwe. In 1980 all these refugees were repatriated.

(6) In 1959, 120,000 Tutsi fled Rwanda to Burundi. In 1963 12,000 Tutsi in Rwanda were killed following an attempted coup d'etat. In 1972 80,000-100,000 people were killed in Burundi, and about 80,000 of these were Hutu. The 1972 slaughter led to the massive involuntary migration of approximately 150,000 Hutu into Rwanda, Zaire, and Tanzania. In 1973 there were an estimated 40,000 Burundi Hutu in Tanzania, 40,000 in Zaire, and 20,000 in Rwanda. Some of these refugees were reportedly along the borders using the camps as bases of operations against the Burundi government.

(7) Newspapers have reported as many as 265,000 refugees from Chad with the total number of refugees estimated at more than 301,000. Since 1974, refugees have come from Equatorial Guinea.

(8) Non-Moslems lost control of Chad's government in 1979 and the exodus of refugees began soon thereafter. A massive exodus has resulted from the establishment of the new "Libyan" government. Most of the contemporary refugees are Christian, tribal, or Moslem groups out of favor with the new Libyan government. Reports suggest that much of the wealth of southern Chad has been taken to Cameroons.

(9) By 1981, nearly 2 million refugees had fled Ethiopia. By March 1981, some 151,000 refugees had returned from the Sudan, and 250,000 more were expected to return from the Sudan before year's end. At least 750,000 persons were reportedly displaced from Ethiopia in 1980.

(10) Estimate in 1971.

(11) Estimate in 1971.

(12) Between 1961 and 1972 some 70,000 East Indians left Kenya. In 1980, nearly 3,000 Ugandan refugees were repatriated.

(13) By November 1972, some 21,000 Jehovah's Witnesses from Malawi were refugees in Zambia's eastern province. In December 17,700 were forced to return. In 1973, 35,000 Jehovah's Witnesses fled continued persecution to Mozambique. By August 1975 they were repatriated in 1976 12,000 had again fled to Mozambique. Jehovah's Witnesses are persecuted because it is against their religion to join political parties.

(14) Some 60,000 refugees were repatriated to Zimbabwe in 1980.

(15) It is estimated that 1 million people died when Nigeria put down the Biafran secessionist movement.

(16) See accompanying stories.

(17) On 28 February 1972 the seventeen-year Civil War in Sudan ended. By conservative estimate, this allowed the repatriation of 208,000 refugees from neighboring countries.

(18) Between 1969 and 1972 more than 30,000 East Indians fled Tanzania.

(19) Between 1970 and 1972 more than 75,0000 East Indians fled Uganda. Hundreds of thousands of Ugandans were reportedly killed under Amin's dictatorship, and 265,000 Ugandans were displaced within the country after his overthrow.

(20) By 1973, there were reported to be more than 1 million refugees in Zaire.

(21) Between 1969 and 1972 nearly 5,000 East Indians fled Zambia.

(22) Prior to February 1980, 33,000 refugees had been repatriated from Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia. In October 1980, after Zimbabwe's new government came to power, 69,000 refugees were repatriated from various countries. In addition there are reportedly more than 1 million Zimbabweans displaced internally during the war.

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