Somalis on the move but fewer reach safe havens: UNHCR

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Somalis are fleeing fighting around Mogadishu but fewer are reaching safe havens in Yemen or Kenya due to rising insecurity and fears of recruitment by Islamist insurgents on the way, the UN refugee agency said.

Somalia’s al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebels are waging a deadly insurgency against the Western-backed transitional government and control large swathes of southern Somalia and the sea-side capital. They are intent on imposing a harsh version of Sharia Islamic law throughout the war-ravaged nation.

The conflict has forced an estimated 169 000 Somalis to leave their homes in south-central Somalia this year, mainly from Mogadishu, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.

Somali refugees report growing difficulties in reaching the port town of Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland, a base for human smugglers’ boats to Yemen, it said.
“People are fearful of moving around simply because there is too much insecurity and they fear to be caught up in the fighting,” UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic told Reuters.
“They also fear forced recruitment if they pass through territory controlled by al Shabaab rebels or Hizbul Islam, especially the men,” he said, citing refugees’ accounts.

Hizbul Islam, a smaller rebel group in an alliance with al Shabaab in Mogadishu, on Wednesday expressed its loyalty to al Qaeda for the first time and invited Osama bin Laden to Somalia.

Somalia has lacked an effective central government for 19 years and Western and neighbouring countries say the country provides sanctuary for militants intent on launching attacks in east Africa and beyond.

Crackdown

Most Somalis fleeing intensified fighting this year have found shelter in makeshift camps in the Afgooye corridor just outside Mogadishu or remain displaced within the capital, according to the UNHCR. The camps now hold some 400 000 people.

Many lack funds to reach Bossaso to make the trip across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, it says. Authorities in Puntland have also cracked down on human traffickers’ in the area.
“These refugee flows are slowing down despite ongoing violence,” UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told a Geneva news briefing. “The number of people crossing the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea has nearly halved during the first quarter of the year.”

Some 9400 people from the Horn of Africa (Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis) arrived in Yemen between January and March, compared to 17 400 in the same period last year.

Some 3200 Somali refugees were among them, one-third the number in the same period last year, the UNHCR said.

Yemen, which automatically recognises Somalis as refugeees, currently hosts more than 170 000 Somalis. Kenya which saw 27 000 Somalis stream into the country in the first quarter of 2009, has registered just 12 000 this year.

Source: www.af.reuters.com