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World's one-time largest refugee-hosting area now reduced to one UN camp

World's one-time largest refugee-hosting area now reduced to one UN camp

Protti (L) with Aisha administrator Ferhan Ibrahim
With the closing of Aisha camp this week, the United Nations refugee agency now operates just one camp housing 10,000 Somalis in eastern Ethiopia, an area which at one time hosted the world's largest concentration of refugees, with nearly 630,000 Somalis who had fled war and political turmoil at home.

At the closing ceremony for Aisha, the seventh camp to be shut down, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) Fernando Protti Alvarado said on Monday, "This milestone brings us one step closer to phasing out our operation in eastern Ethiopia, an area which 15 years ago was the largest refugee-hosting area in the world."

Since 1997 UNHCR has helped some 240,000 of the 628,000 Somali refugees in eastern Ethiopia to go home to north-western Somalia, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, while hundreds of thousands of others returned on their own.

The Somalilanders of Aisha camp fled civil war in the 1980s and the overthrow of the Siad Barre national regime in 1991. The last convoy to Somaliland, the 213th since repatriation started in 1997, left Aisha camp on May 28.

Mr. Protti thanked the Ethiopian Government and the host community for their hospitality. He handed over to Aisha district authorities the facilities at the camp, including offices, a health centre, a school, a women's community centre, a grinding mill, a warehouse, a food distribution centre, a borehole, a motorized water pumping system and a replacement generator.

He said his team would repair the school, health centre and water facility over the next two weeks but regretted that UNHCR could not accede to the district authorities' request that it help to run the machinery until the local government learned to manage it since UNHCR is a humanitarian agency dealing with refugees and not a development organization.

UNHCR's Kebribeyah camp is the only one remaining in eastern Ethiopia now. It houses more than 10,000 refugees from parts of Somalia to which it is not yet safe to return.