The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has started relocating hundreds of people fleeing an upsurge in fighting and tightened access to humanitarian aid in southern and central Somalia to a camp in neighbouring Ethiopia.
The agency is moving the refugees from a transit centre in Dolo Ado in Ethiopia, near its border with Somalia, to a new camp in Melkadida over 60 kilometres away, spokesperson Melissa Fleming told reporters today in Geneva.
The first convoy, comprising 11 buses and two trucks, transported 247 refugees to the new site. They are the first of 7,000 Somalis who have been recognized as refugees by the Ethiopian Government with UNHCR`s support. Under current plans, 500 refugees a week will be moved from Dolo Ado to the new camp.
Melkadida is the second camp in southeast Ethiopia and the fifth in the country to host refugees from Somalia. The first site in Bokolmanyo, which opened last April, was built to accommodate 20,000 people and has already reached capacity.
Likewise, the new camp at Melkadida can host up to 20,000 refugees and UNCHR, together with its partners, are working to expand basic infrastructure, including water services and the erection of a health centre. The building of elementary schools is also in the pipeline.
Upon arrival at the site, the refugees spend three days in a reception area and then move to their allocated plots of land where emergency tents have been built until permanent shelters are in place. The Somalis are provided with food, kitchen sets, jerry cans, mosquito nets and other supplies.
Somalis are arriving in Ethiopia at an average of 200 individuals per day, and we are already planning for further camps near Melkadida, " Ms. Fleming noted.
At present, over 60,000 Somalis are living in four camps, including Bokolmanyo, in Ethiopia`s Somali region, and they continue to arrive at a pace of 200 per day.
At the height of the region`s refugee crisis in the early 1990s, the area was home to 628,000 Somali refugees. Most returned to their homes between 1997 and 2005, and nearly all camps were shut down as a result.
However, renewed conflict again caused Somalis to take flight to Ethiopia, with three new camps built between 2007 and 2009.
In the past two weeks alone, the UNHCR spokesperson said, nearly 14,000 people have been driven from their homes by the spike in fighting in Mogadishu between the forces of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and opposition. Over half of these people have managed to escape the capital, while others are stranded in relatively safer areas of the city.
The number of casualties and of people injured in the crossfire is alarming, " Ms. Fleming said, with at least 50 people reportedly having been killed and more than 100 others injured since the violence erupted last week.
UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia Mark Bowden expressed grave concern yesterday at the latest surge in clashes in Mogadishu, which has claimed dozens of lives.
He said the most recent fighting has been focused in northern Mogadishu, especially the districts of Heliwa, Yaaqshiid and Wardhiigleey.
I am alarmed by the large number of casualties emanating from recent fighting, " he said in a statement, adding that civilians continue to bear the brunt of conflict and insecurity in the country. "
The worst of the latest fighting between Government forces and al-Shabaab militiamen is reported to have occurred on 10 February, when 24 people died and nearly 160 others had to be hospitalized with war-related injuries.