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Once world's largest refugee camp in Ethiopia now closed - UN agency

Once world's largest refugee camp in Ethiopia now closed - UN agency

Food distribution in Ethiopia's Hartisheik camp
What was once the world's largest refugee camp, hosting more than 250,000 Somalis in Ethiopia, has closed after the final return convoy left for northwest Somalia, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said today.

The last UNHCR return convoy left Hartisheik camp yesterday with 719 Somalis, marking a milestone in a repatriation movement that has seen over 230,000 refugees return home since April 1997. Many others have gone back on their own.

Hartisheik was the site to which hundreds of thousands of Somalis flocked amid the collapse of the Siad Barre government in 1988 and the eruption of clan warfare in the early 1990s. The first refugees arrived in appalling conditions; many died of exhaustion, hunger and lack of water. UNHCR mobilized emergency assistance in the remote region, setting up camps, digging wells and offering medical services.

At its peak, the camp hosted more than a quarter million refugees, mostly from Gabiley and Hargeisa areas in northwestern Somalia, known as Somaliland. The camp bustled with a busy market where people could find almost anything they needed, from imported clothes to jogging shoes, electronic appliances and auto spare parts.

With the camp's closure, UNHCR plans to hand over the facilities - which include a dam, schools, community and health centres, prefabricated warehouses as well as the agency's office and residence - to the district government in eastern Ethiopia.

Of the two Somali camps left in eastern Ethiopia, Aisha camp is continuing return convoys to northwestern Somalia while Kebribeyah camp hosts mostly refugees from southern Somalia, where uncertain security conditions prevent them from going home. In all, the two camps host some 24,400 Somali refugees.

In related news, the UN reported today that Ethiopia has received only 20 per cent of the funds it needs this year for basic supplies. By contrast, it has received 62 per cent of its funding requirements for food. The imbalance has been acutely felt in the country's HIV/AIDS sector, which has received zero funding.

Just $17 million of the $85 million in non-food assistance for Ethiopia has been received since the UN consolidated appeals process was launched last November, according to a mid-year assessment. Besides the lack of funding for HIV/AIDS, no money has been earmarked for education, disaster response and capacity strengthening.

Because of the funding shortfall for basic needs, humanitarian groups have been forced to shift money from other areas in order to fight outbreaks of meningitis and malaria.