The United Nations refugee agency is mobilizing staff and resources in preparation for a possible exodus of tens of thousands of people fleeing fighting in Somalia.
Although no large-scale refugee movements have yet been recorded in neighbouring countries, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is immediately positioning relief items in the region as well as trucks and emergency staff.
The agency is reinforcing its operational capacity in north-eastern Kenya and Ethiopia in response to the worsening humanitarian situation in Somalia, where thousands of people have been displaced by recent fighting between Ethiopian forces aligned with the Somali Transitional Federal Government and the Islamic Courts Union.
Relief items, including plastic sheets and jerry cans for up to 50,000 people, are being sent from UNHCR regional warehouses and positioned along the Somali border. At the same time, the agency’s fleet of vehicles is being expanded with the deployment of 10 extra trucks.
Beyond the immediate pre-positioning of relief items, UNHCR will also increase its existing stockpiles in the region by purchasing enough supplies for a further 100,000 people, both refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
UNHCR emergency response teams are on standby, ready to be sent to the region from around the world, and staff on holiday have been recalled as agency offices in Kenya, Ethiopia and across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen closely monitor the situation for any increase in cross-border movements. So far, only small numbers of refugees have been crossing into both Kenya and Ethiopia.
Inside Somalia, thousands of people fleeing the conflict are reported to be in a desperate situation. UNHCR staff in Puntland, in the north-east, report some 3,000 IDPs who fled the fighting further south. The agency has also received reports of several thousand IDPs in the Bay, Hirann, Mudug, Juba, and Shabelle regions and is particularly concerned about reports of civilians, including children, being forcibly recruited to join the fighting.
On Tuesday, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres expressed concern at the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Somalia and appealed to all sides to respect humanitarian principles and the rights of the civilian population.
Before the latest upsurge in fighting, more than 30,000 Somalis had already fled the conflict to north-east Kenya this year amid fears that the influx could climb to 80,000 by the end of 2006. The region already shelters some 160,000 Somalis who had fled earlier fighting and droughts.