Food distribution in Mogadishu, Somalia

Somalia and the International Status Quo in Refugee Management: When is the right time to say the big F word?

Reporting on her meeting in January 2010 with M. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the then UN special representative for Somalia - Ambassador Susan Rice noted in a leaked diplomatic cable posted by Wikileaks:
"(Ould-Abdallah), noted the high number of foreign fighters who have joined the armed opposition, including American and British citizens, and gave a firsthand account of the prevalence of extremist views within the Somali community living in Minnesota. Stating that the threat is critical, Ould-Abdallah urged targeted operations on terrorists in Somalia, and said that the Security Council needs to define its overall objective in Somalia."

A few months later, Minnesota Public Radio reported that a Somali store owner had his business vandalised with graffiti that said, "Go Home" one event in a long series of racial incidents targeting the Somali community in Minnesota.

A year later, UNHCR's representative to Somalia, the UN agency mandated with the assistance and protection of refugees worldwide, declared during a visit in Somalia:
"This famine should be a turning point and we are determined to make a real difference to Somalis where they are, so that they don't feel compelled to move to another country,"

What can be drawn from these events that seem so loosely connected at first sight? Firstly, that there is a clear intent to contain Somalis inside Somalia's borders. Secondly, these events illustrate how humanitarian assistance has become entangled with migration and security agendas. Indeed, most humanitarian assistance in Somalia and in refugee camps is subordinated and in support of these two agendas.

While many have pointed that it is bad governance and conflict that kill people in Somalia, not droughts, commentators usually have in mind governance at country level but often overlook the global governance picture based on a blend of migration, security and, to some extent, humanitarian concerns.

In the absence of an accurate picture of Somalis' situation inside the country, Dadaab camps located in Kenya are the most visible illustration of that governance failure. Refugees in Dadaab face the double burden of poor living and security conditions in congested camps and indefinite exile. This situation underscores the failure of the current international status quo in the management of refugees across the globe based on encampment, detention and restricted resettlement opportunities.

Like a tree, successive waves of refugees' influx in Dadaab constitute rings that give a fair account of Somalia's last 20 years of history. The Dadaab refugee population had been relatively stable, for a decade, starting from the mid-1990s. The camps' population started to dramatically increase in 2007. It has almost tripled since December 2006 which marked the beginning of yet another chapter of violence in Somalia when major international and regional players embarked on a policy of regime change to oust the Islamic Courts Union from south-central Somalia in the name of counter-terrorism and nation-building. With a drought exacerbating an already desperate situation, the current significant arrival of refugees marks another chapter of a crisis that started 20 years ago...

Can UNHCR's representative comments be taken as a sign that the "international community" has abdicated on its responsibility to provide assistance and protection to refugees? All signs point towards this conclusion.

UNHCR states that camps should be considered as a last and temporary option, and, if a camp is to be established, high population density and very large settlements should be avoided. Three durable solutions to a refugee crisis are usually put forward: voluntary repatriation, local integration, and third country resettlement. Repatriation is not conceivable, prospects for formal integration in Kenya are limited and for many refugees in Dadaab, resettlement to a third country appears to be the only viable option. This option is based on the principle of burden-sharing and international solidarity in refugee situations. Paragraph 4 of the Preamble of the 1951 Refugee Convention states that:
"the grant of asylum may place unduly heavy burdens on certain countries, and that a satisfactory solution of a problem of which the United Nations has recognized the international scope and nature cannot therefore be achieved without international cooperation."

With the end of the Cold War, a progressive shift occurred in the management of refugee situations, from a regime of international protection and assistance as enshrined in the Refugee Convention to a regime of neglect. The Global War on Terror and anti-immigrant sentiments have accelerated this shift. The refugee as a figure and a legal category is now subsumed into the broader class of "migrant" and recast as suspect. As the line between "migrant" and "refugee" blurs, the distinction between migration control and refugee assistance and protection has become tenuous.

Dadaab camps should not be seen in isolation from other locations where Somali refugees - and refugees and asylum seekers from other countries - are forced to stay and live a secluded existence in permanent transit. Refugee camps, detention centres and slums to name a few constitute a web of connected "extra-territorial" zones across Africa, Europe and the Middle East where Somali refugees - and others - are often deprived from satisfactory international protection and assistance. Also, movements from one location to another can lead to death, physical abuses, extortion and detention.

Restrictive asylum policies are increasingly shaped by a security discourse and a growing anti-migrant sentiment in Europe and North America. Today, Somalis are considered to be the most "systematically undesired, stigmatised and discriminated against refugees in the world" in UNHCR words. In Western countries, Somalis and citizens of Somali origin are increasingly perceived as a threat and as a troublesome population. From the status of victims of high emotional symbolic value worth an international military intervention in the 90s to "ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Somalia" as per UN Security Council resolution 794 (1992); under the pretext of security concerns, Somalis have come to be identified as threats. This demonization process hinges at times towards a dehumanisation of Somalis. It should not come as a surprise that boats ransomed by Somali pirates off the coast of Somalia attract more media attention than the hundreds of deaths every year of Somalis and other refugees who embarked for the perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden or the Mediterranean sea.

With Dadaab population expected to reach half-a-million by the end of the year, the refugees' situation is expected to keep deteriorating. The current status quo cannot hold indefinitely. When is the right time to declare the big F word, F not for famine but for failure, the failure of States to uphold their obligations to assist and protect refugees? It also begs another question for aid actors. At which moment does collaboration in the management and control of an "undesirable" population becomes complicity? When humanitarian assistance is forced to take on a primary role in the management of an inextricable situation, it is high time to remind that this situation is not outside the political realm and that States and other parties must take their responsibilities.

To cite this content :
Hakim Chkam, “Somalia and the International Status Quo in Refugee Management: When is the right time to say the big F word?”, 22 septembre 2011, URL :

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