Refugees from Ethiopia and officials of NGOs and governments were interviewed in Somaliland and Djibouti in November and December 2011. Formal interviews with 43 refugees, including 17 in Hargeisa, confirmed other reports that a high proportion of refugees from Ethiopia give histories of torture. Twenty one of the 43 interviewees (49%), including 13 of the 17 interviewed in Hargeisa (76%), had been tortured. Many instances of killing and rape by Ethiopian government forces were reported.
Somaliland officials and journalists claim that refugees from Ethiopia are at best economic migrants; at worst criminals and terrorists. Simplistic portrayal of immigrants as economic migrants ignores life-threatening destitution which is a direct result of Ethiopian government policies and the deliberate targeting of government critics for economic sanctions.
Because of the cooperation between Somaliland and Ethiopia, perceived critics and opponents of the Ethiopian regime are not given safe haven as refugees in Somaliland. Refoulement of refugees and asylum-seekers continues and UNHCR has proved ineffective in preventing this. Seven individuals were taken back to Ethiopia by combined units of Ethiopian and Somaliland forces between 25 October 2011 and 3 January 2012.
Refugee status determination and registration of asylum-seekers has been stalled since 2008. UNHCR recognises 1660 refugees and several thousand asylum-seekers. Recognised refugees were given monthly allowances of $40-80 per family by UNHCR and were given access to supplementary feeding, primary education and limited medical help at the Social Welfare Centre, provided by Save the Children under contract to UNHCR.
Under pressure from the Somaliland government, UNHCR withdrew the majority of allowances at the beginning of 2011, causing many families to get behind with their rent. In September, the government banned the employment of ‘illegal immigrants’. Recognised refugees and asylum-seekers were dismissed from their low paid, part-time jobs which had enabled them to subsist. Unable to pay rent, they were evicted by their landlords, who in many instances confiscated their belongings in lieu of rent.
At the beginning of November, destitute refugees began camping at the Social Welfare Centre and asylum-seekers set up camp on an adjacent vacant lot. Over 400 are now camped inside and outside the centre. Save the Children stopped the supplementary feeding, primary school and health care provision and later terminated its contract. The owner of the building is trying to remove the encamped refugees and using violence to do so.
Overcrowded, insanitary conditions, food shortage and lack of medical care have been responsible for deaths at the centre. Eight infants died in a 15 day period in January 2012.
Refugees are not being protected in Somaliland. They face an uncertain future. Their choices are limited to returning to face persecution, torture and death in Ethiopia; remaining as destitute, unwanted people in Somaliland, prone to death from hunger and disease and at risk of refoulement back to Ethiopia, or; walking to apply for asylum elsewhere, leaving those, who are too weak to walk, to die at the roadside.