Monthly Archives: November 2013

Kenya to repatriate Somali refugees

The Dadaab refugee camp, Oct 2013

The Dadaab refugee camps are now more like towns.

More than 500,000 Somali refugees in Kenya are to be given the opportunity to return home after the UN refugee agency signed a tripartite agreement with the two countries’ governments.

Under the agreement, the Somalis will be repatriated voluntarily over the next three years.

The Somalis have sought refuge in Kenya from war and poverty.

Two of the camps they live in, Dadaab and Kakuma, are now so large they are more like towns, correspondents say.

There is also a suburb of the capital, Nairobi – Eastleigh – that is known as “Little Mogadishu” because so many Somalis live there.

‘Terrorism threat’

The refugees fled Somalia after the collapse of the central government in 1991.

Many of them were born in camps and have never set foot inside their home country.

The two governments and the UN hope to introduce a reintegration programme to help the refugees start new lives in Somalia and take part in the reconstruction of the country.

Somalia’s Deputy Prime Minister Fowsia Yusuf Adam said her country was preparing for the safe return of its refugees.

“Terrorism is still a major threat to our region. The federal republic of Somalia is committed to creating conditions that will allow for the safe and dignified voluntary repatriation of the Somali refugees in Kenya and other neighbouring countries.”

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said refugees would decide whether they wanted to return.

“No-one wants to see refugees go home and have to flee again, or become displaced inside Somalia,” said Alessandra Morelli, the UNHCR representative for Somalia.

Somalia’s ambassador to Kenya, Mohammed Ali Nur, told the BBC the agreement would be implemented over three years.

It gave refugees the chance to rebuild their lives, he said.

“They can’t be begging… for food all their lives,” he told the BBC’s Newsday programme.

The BBC World Service’s Africa editor, Richard Hamilton, says the main problem with the agreement is that most of the refugees know that Somalia is still not safe and probably would not want to return.


Our correspondent says that, while Kenya has been praised for offering help to a neighbour in need, the country is becoming disgruntled with having to bear the burden of the refugee population.

Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto says refugees have become a shield for those who pose a security threat to Kenya.

Kenya has been concerned about further threats of terrorism following the attack by suspected Somali militants on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in September.

The Somali Islamist al-Shabab group – which is linked to al-Qaeda – said it was behind the attack.

It said it was taking revenge after Kenya sent troops into Somalia to help the UN-backed government seize territory from militants.



Horn migrants risk new routes to reach Europe

By Kristy Siegfried 

Migrants form queues to be counted by their smuggler prior to boarding a boat to Yemen


  • More migrants heading to Europe
  • Saudi Arabia and Israel get tough
  • Smugglers’ new routes through Sahara
  • The ‘balloon effect’

JOHANNESBURG, 11 November 2013 (IRIN) – The shipwreck that claimed the lives of more than 350 mainly Eritrean asylum seekers off the Italian island of Lampedusa last month has focused Europe’s obsession with irregular migration on the area of the Mediterranean separating southern Italy and Malta from North Africa. But this treacherous stretch of sea represents only the final leg of a lengthy journey filled with hazards.

The number of migrants attempting the so-called Central Mediterranean route has doubled in the last year, to over 30,000 by the end of September. The majority of boats now depart from Libya, a country where smugglers operate with relative ease thanks to porous borders and the lack of an effective police force or army under the transitional government.

Coming from the Horn

Syrians fleeing the war in their country make up a significant portion of the current migrant influx, accounting for 7,500 of the 26,100 who arrived in Sicily from Libya by the end of September, according the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). But a further 7,500 came from Eritrea and 3,000 from Somalia, compared to 1,890 Eritreans and 3,400 Somalis who used the same route through all of 2012.

Katrine Camilleri of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Malta, a tiny southern European country that has received nearly 1,700 migrants and asylum seekers so far this year, told IRIN that “over the last two years, the proportion of Somalis and Eritreans has increased.”

The question of why more Eritreans and Somalis are trying to reach Europe is one that researchers are only beginning to try to answer, but changes in migration policy in faraway Saudi Arabia and Israel offer some important clues.

Until last year, the majority of migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa region – which encompasses Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Djibouti – headed either for the Gulf States by way of Yemen or to Israel by way of Sudan and Egypt.

This year, both of these routes were virtually cut off. Saudi Arabia has resumed construction of a 1,800km fence along its border with Yemen and deported thousands of undocumented migrant workers. According to Chris Horwood of the Nairobi-based Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS), Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen is now “completely sealed” and migrants are unable to get through. Although Ethiopians and Somalis continue to arrive in Yemen, their numbers have dropped from over 107,000 in 2012 to 58,000 by the end of September this year.

At the beginning of 2013, Israel completed its own fence along the border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, shortly after a law allowing it to detain so-called “infiltrators” for up to three years came into effect. Prior to these measures, around 1,000 asylum seekers, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, were reaching Israel every month. By contrast, during the first nine months of 2013, only 36 individuals crossed the border, according to UNHCR Tel-Aviv.

“It would make sense that two major borders being closed – and the demand from migrants to move being the same as it was – that they will look for alternative routes,” said Horwood.

A perilous journey

Tesfamihret Sheshy*, a 29-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker who spoke to IRIN over the phone from Malta, left his country in February 2012 after being forced to take up a teaching post as part of his national service. He was not trained as a teacher, received no salary and was posted far from his family home. “There was no limit of years you have to be there,” he explained. “You can’t help yourself, your family or the economy of your country.”

After a brief spell at Shagarag refugee camp in eastern Sudan, a “deadly” place where abductions of refugees by human traffickers were a common occurrence, Sheshy paid smugglers to take him to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. But after a year of dodging authorities and being unable to support himself, he decided to try to reach Europe via Libya. “I knew life there [in Libya] was very difficult, but I had no choice,” he said. “Going out of Eritrea, it’s not like you have a preference [about where you’re going]; you get out of your house because it’s on fire and you’re just looking for people who can welcome you.

“People were travelling to Israel because it was the only way, and now they’re travelling to Europe because it’s the only way.”

After paying another smuggler, Sheshy spent 10 days crossing the Sahara desert with a group of 25 other migrants, all of them Eritrean. “It was very horrible. In the desert, there was no water and the smugglers were threatening us. Fortunately, we survived.”

Some are less fortunate. Recently, the bodies of 92 migrants who had been trying to reach Algeria were found in northern Niger. They had died of thirst after the two trucks carrying them broke down and their smugglers abandoned them.

After entering Libya and being detained by a militia in Benghazi for several days, Sheshy escaped and made his way to Tripoli, the capital. There, he contacted a Libyan smuggler who promised to transport him to Europe. Instead, the man locked him in a warehouse with 300 other migrants. He remained there for two months before his relatives could send the US$1,600 that the smuggler demanded for his release and passage to Europe.

On their own

Melissa Phillips, a senior programme officer with the Danish Refugee Council in Tripoli, said that the absence of international or government agencies in southern Libya has made it impossible to track the numbers of migrants entering the country. “The only thing we have at the moment is the number of boats departing from Libya,” she told IRIN.

According to UNHCR, 4,619 migrants left Libya for Europe in September alone, compared to 775 during the same month last year.

Phillips added that Libya has long been a destination for economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa looking for work. But for asylum seekers looking for protection, Libya’s lack of a refugee law and practice of detaining migrants means it is rarely a final destination. “Those groups [transiting through Libya] would include Eritreans, Somalis, some Ethiopians and Syrians,” she said.

Fearing arrest, smugglers rarely accompany migrants on sea crossings, despite charging upwards of $1,500 for passage on over-crowded, often unseaworthy, vessels. “Someone is given instructions on how to navigate. People will call that person the captain, but that person is a fellow migrant who’s suddenly been given a GPS [global positioning system],” explained Phillips. “If anything adverse happens [at sea], they will go off course.”

This was the experience of Ahmed Omar Isaak, a 31-year-old Somali refugee who also described his journey to IRIN over the phone from Malta. “We were 55 Somalis in one inflatable boat. They just gave us a compass and a GPS and told us which direction to go, and then they put us in the sea and told us to go,” he said.

Sheshy travelled with 300 others in a fishing boat that broke down after three days at sea with no food or water. They were rescued by Italian and Maltese coast guards and taken to Malta, where Sheshy has spent the past three months in a refugee reception centre while his asylum application is processed.

“Playing into the hands of human traffickers”

The Danish Refugee Council and RMMS are about to embark on a study that will look at migration flows from the Horn of Africa, through Sudan to Libya, and onward to Europe. The research aims to learn more about the routes and methods of travel this group of migrants and asylum seekers are using and the dangers they face along the way.

What is already clear, however, is that making it more difficult for asylum seekers to use one route to safety merely forces them to use other, often more dangerous, routes. Similar patterns are playing out all over the world, but particularly on the frontiers of Europe, where increasing numbers of migrants and asylum seekers are now entering the European Union via Bulgaria and other Balkan countries, following increased border controls in Greece, previously the most popular entry point.

“It’s like squeezing a balloon,” said Edwards of UNHCR. “The problem pops up somewhere else, and that’s exactly why we’ve been arguing strongly that you can only really work to reduce the toll in lives if you approach it holistically. If you approach it from a deterrent point of view, you’re playing into the hands of human traffickers.”

Phillips of the Danish Refugee Council pointed out that not only do deterrents like fences shift the routes taken by migrants, they also set precedent for transit countries like Libya that are looking for examples to model their migration policies on.

“It’s not just Israel and Saudi Arabia. It’s the actions of European countries, who are talking about greater use of sea patrols and Frontex [the EU’s border security agency] but not about how [they] can share this responsibility. So there are very few good examples that Libya can look to about how to manage this.”

Ahmed Omar Isaak, Somali migrant: “I never dreamed I would end up in the sea”

OHANNESBURG, 11 November 2013 (IRIN) – Ahmed Omar Isaak, 31, fled the conflict in his home country of Somalia in January 2012. His intention was merely to move to a place of safety, but that proved much harder than he had imagined. Over the next 16 months, he travelled nearly 5,000km in trucks, buses, boats and the boot of a car, enduring detention, beatings and being stranded in the Sahara desert. He told IRIN about his journey over the phone from Malta.

“I’m from the Medina District of Mogadishu region. I left the country because of so many reasons – lack of security and tribal fights. At first, I just wanted to go to the nearest country for safety, and that was Kenya. I stayed in Nairobi for two months, but without any documents, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t survive, and I was afraid that the Kenyan police would arrest me. So I went to the Ugandan border by truck. From there, I went to Kampala and stayed one month, but life was very hard because I didn’t know anyone to help me. Someone told me that I should try Libya because it was easy to get from there to Europe.”
Crossing the desert

“I passed into South Sudan and took a bus to Juba, and from there went by boat up the River Nile to the border with Sudan, and then I took a bus to Khartoum. Then, I started my journey through the Sahara desert. I paid US$360, and

there were 80 Somalis squeezed into 12 Land Cruisers travelling in a convoy for three days and three nights. We ran out of water, and the sun was terribly hot. In the desert, there was a big smuggler who works between the two countries [Sudan and Libya]. He kept us for three weeks. He told me to call my parents and ask for $800. I became sick; I nearly died. There were 200 of us there, and five of them died. By the help of Allah, there was a Good Samaritan, a fellow Somali who gave $200 from his pocket to pay for me.
“We came from there to Libya with smugglers, but before we reached Kufra [near Libya’s south-eastern border], we were met by militias. They arrested the smugglers and left us there in the middle of the Sahara. There were 99 of us, and we stayed there for 24 hours without water, food or shade before the militia came back for us. They put us in a lorry and took us to Kufra. That’s where we were jailed for four months and beaten, day in, day out.

“One day, I told them that I wanted to go to the toilet. The main gate was open and there was no guard at that time, so four of us escaped. We didn’t know where to run; we just went into town and hid ourselves in a building that was still being constructed. Then we went to a part of town where Africans were living, and they helped us and gave us food.

“I called my parents and friends, and they sent me $500, which I used to pay a smuggler to take me to Benghazi. He took me to the Red Cross there, and they gave me blankets and somewhere to sleep. I stayed there for two weeks, and then smugglers took a group of us to Tripoli in a private car. They dressed me up like a Libyan woman with my face covered so the police would not question me. Other times, they put me in the boot of the car.

“In Tripoli, the police stopped me to ask for documents, and when I spoke English to them instead of Arabic, they beat me with sticks and the back of a gun and took some money from me and told me to go. The next time I was stopped, I was jailed for two months. Finally, the Somali ambassador came and got us released.”

Crossing the sea

“Two weeks later, I decided to take a boat to Europe. I never wanted to stay in Libya because life there is hell. Others paid $400 or $500 to the smugglers, but I didn’t pay

because I didn’t have money. I told them that in school I was taught how to navigate and knew how to use a compass, and they trusted me. It wasn’t true, but when I was in Tripoli I went to the internet and looked up how to use a GPS [global positioning system] and which settings to use.
“We were 55 Somalis in one inflatable boat. They just gave us

a compass and a GPS and told us which direction to go, and then they put us in the sea and told us to go. We were aiming to go to Malta because the sea is very big and wide and that was the nearest place to get to. Around 160km away from Tripoli, the boat started taking on water. Everybody was screaming, some people wanted to go back to Libya, but I told people to keep taking the water out while we waited for a ship to come. But no one came to rescue us. After about 10 more hours, we drifted to just outside Tripoli, near the border with Tunisia. Some militia saw us and asked us where we were from and if we were trying to go to Italy. They beat us and took us to a detention centre, where we spent three weeks. Some ladies were pregnant and vomiting, and some of the militia felt sorry for us and decided to let us go, but said if they saw us going in the sea again, they would kill us.
“I came back to Tripoli, and after another month, found another smuggler with a boat. I had to go back to the sea again. It was another inflatable boat, and we only had biscuits and a little water, which [were] finished after two da

ys. I drank some of the seawater because I was so thirsty. But after three days and three nights at sea, we came safely to the land of Malta.
“We were taken to detention, but it was an open centre, a nice place, and UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] met us there and registered us. I requested refugee status, and after staying there for three months, I got my protection. Now I’ve settled in town and I get a little money from the government and from doing some interpretation.

“Malta is a small country, and I like it, but I want to continue legally to another country, to be resettled in a country like America. I left Somalia because of Al-Shabab, and so many problems, but if I had known that’s how it would be, I would never have left. I never dreamed I would end up in the sea or the distance I would cross in the end to get protection and opportunities.”

The plight of refugees

War and political turmoil force thousands to leave their homelands, but why do so many risk it all in search of asylum?

Everyday war, poverty and political unrest force thousands of people to leave their homelands in search of a better life.

The United Nations says that there are now more refugees than at any time since 1994. And many do not always reach their final destinations.

One popular migrant route from Africa to Europe is via Italy’s Lampedusa island. Located southwest of Sicily, the island is actually closer to Africa – just over 100km from the coast of Tunisia. For years it has been a stepping stone for undocumented migrants seeking a better life in Europe.

More than 8,000 refugees arrived on Lampedusa in the first nine months of this year, but on October 3, more than 300 Eritrean and Somali asylum seekers drowned when their fishing boat sank off the Italian island.

Despite huge risks, refugees continue to make the dangerous crossing from North Africa to Europe on an almost daily basis.

Most refugees come from Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia. Among the main causes of global migration are war, famine and political turmoil.

Most migrant arrivals by boat to the European Union land in southern EU countries, like Italy and Malta, which have appealed for more support and resources to deal with the influx.

This has prompted the European Commission to press for greater resources to survey and patrol sea routes; the opening of more channels of regular migration; increased cooperation with countries of origin and transit, especially Libya; and spreading migrants more evenly across the EU.

“We are verging on the unsustainable now. Honestly, something needs to be done,” Malta’s Primer Minister Joseph Muscat said.

“First of all the people who get their application refused need to go back, I do believe that we need to convey the message that there should be legal ways in which to reach Europe and that Europe is not the promised land of milk and honey. It’s a place where there are problems and people should not expect a solution to all their woes, just like that, overnight.”

Indonesia is a popular transit point for asylum seekers going to Australia, but 36 people died in September when their Australia-bound boat sank off Indonesia’s coast. All the victims of that accident were from the Middle East.

Australia’s government sends undocumented migrants to processing centres in the Pacific Islands. Prime Minister Tony Abbott promises to turn back any boats with refugees, and his tough immigration policies helped his party win the country’s recent elections.

Since 2007, around 45,000 people have arrived in Australia, but the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat has fallen since the new policy was adopted.

So, why do so many people risk it all to cross into other countries? And what is being done to protect them?

To discuss this, Inside Story, with presenter Laura Kyle, is joined by guests: Mikael Ribenveek, the deputy director general of the Swedish Migration Board; Jamal Osman, a former refugee from Somalia who has settled in the UK; and Volker Turk, the director of international protection with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“As you know, human smuggling and trafficking is a big business, is organised crime, but … unfortunately in many parts of the world legal entry for refugees is not possible, so you would as a result see an increase in so-called irregular migration … which is sometimes for them the only way to escape and to seek safety. This is very unfortunate but this is how it is , I am afraid to say.”

– Volker Turk, the director of international protection with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

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