Africa | Forcible displacement from natural disasters
Displacement in Somalia has been an important phenomenon since the beginning of the Somali Civil War in 1991, which plunged the country into a multifaceted crisis it has yet to recover from. The situation has further deteriorated due to weather-related events and conflict, forcing nearly 1 million Somalis to flee since the beginning of 2023.
Weather-related disasters represent the primary cause of displacement in Somalia. The country is currently experiencing the longest and most severe drought in the last 40 years, marked by six consecutive seasons of poor rainfall. Since mid-March 2023, floods have also started in Somalia’s central regions, causing the Shabelle and Juba rivers to overflow, displacing 140,000 people. The droughts and floods have led to the destruction of more than 4 million livestock and the loss of agricultural income for the pastoral Somali population, creating a grave situation of malnutrition across the country and sparking the spread of malaria and cholera. Whilst the current rainy season has slightly alleviated the situation, more precipitation is necessary to recover from this climate disaster. Food insecurity is exacerbated by economic pressure from al-Shabaab, which levies higher taxes on the population to compensate for the losses caused by the drought. Somalis have also suffered from the global economic crisis and the rise of food prices due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as Somalia imports around 90% of its wheat from the two countries.
Conflict is the second cause of displacement in Somalia. Al-Shabaab still maintains control over important parts of the country’s rural territories where it imposes Sharia Law. Al-Shabaab’s predatory governance has caused some people to migrate to government-controlled territory, but most displacement is due to fighting between the state army and the terrorist group.
In August 2022, the Somali government launched a new military offensive in central parts of the country, which caused a peak in the number of internally displaced people (IDPs), reaching 182,000 people in the region of Hiraan in August. Since February 2023, fighting has also erupted between the federal forces of the self-proclaimed independent region of Somaliland and local clans in their bid to join the government of Somalia, sparking the flight of more than 150,000 people, of which two-thirds crossed the Ethiopian border to seek refuge.
Weather-related events and conflict in Somalia have not only caused a fivefold increase in displacement since the beginning of 2022, but they are also responsible for the worsening of living conditions for those already displaced. Most Somalis fleeing insecurity migrate to urban centres when possible, which has led to overcrowding, lack of access to basic services, unsanitary conditions, and insecurity. These conditions have worsened as the host communities struggle to find food amid the drought and the strain on local resources increases.
In recent years, the Somali federal government has passed numerous laws in an attempt to provide relief for the displaced. The National Identification and Registration Authority Bill adopted in 2018, reinforced by the announcement of a national census, facilitates identity registration, thus favouring access to services and government monitoring. In 2019, the government passed the National Policy on Refugee-Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons, which “codifies the roles and responsibilities between the Federal Government and the Federal Member States” in ensuring that the displaced have access to the same rights as any other Somali citizen. These legislative frameworks represent a great milestone for Somalia, but the dramatic situation currently witnessed by the millions of migrants highlights the unfortunate reality that this progress has failed to materialise as of yet.
Legislation is also needed to protect victims of gender-based violence, which has increased since 2021, as rape is still not criminalized in the country. Neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia have relocated the Somali refugees to camps at their borders. Following the recent clash in Somaliland, Ethiopia has allocated 400 hectares (1 hectare = 10,000 square metres) to welcome the newly displaced, but the country also hit by the drought lacks resources to provide adequate services to refugees. Although Somalis are not supported by integration policies in the host countries - Kenya pursues a strict encampment strategy and Ethiopia’s integration bills have not been properly implemented - they are supported informally by the local population due to ethnic and cultural similarities. However, the increase in the number of refugees, in addition to the complicated security and climatic situations in the Horn of Africa, could disrupt this relationship.
Since last July, humanitarian organisations have reached an average of 5.5 million Somalis per month, mostly delivering cash transfers for immediate food assistance but also investing in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH), Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM), and Shelter and Non-Food Items.
WHO and UNICEF have provided medical and vaccination services to more than 2 million children and agencies are working together with local actors to improve the conditions in settlements. The IOM initiated a durable solutions program “through an inclusive planning process with local authorities and communities, laying the foundation for long-term development planning.” However, the inaccessibility of numerous areas due to the drought and/or al-Shabaab’s control and the lack of funding for Somalia’s aid missions are hampering the effectiveness of humanitarian operations.
Locally, the large influx of displaced since 2022 has complicated the provision of essential services and has favoured the emergence of settlements with “slum-like conditions that perpetuate humanitarian dependency.” UNHCR’s Representative in Somalia stated that “with new displacement climbing by the day, the needs are overwhelming.” Many displaced continue to reside in terrible conditions, facing high insecurity and lacking access to sufficient food. An alarming surge in levels of acute malnutrition and mortality has been recorded since 2022.
The primary concern expressed by the displaced population is the need for shelter, as many have to sleep in insecure open spaces, making them vulnerable to various protection risks and harsh weather conditions. The lack of housing allocation also translates into massive forced evictions by the owners of the private land on which migrants informally settle, which creates burdensome secondary displacement. To fill the void left by the government, individuals known as “gatekeepers” have emerged to organise IDPs’ accommodation and provide certain services - from dispute settlement to funeral planning - in exchange for a portion of their food or monetary assistance. The gatekeeper system is complex and is more or less predatory depending on the camp’s age and the IDPs’ clan affiliation. Unfortunately, the massive arrival of the newly displaced since 2022 is likely to turn into criminal gatekeeping, diverting aid and engaging in abusive practices.
Limited resources and food also pose a significant risk for the displaced population, of which 93% is food insecure. Violent competition over resources has emerged both in rural and urban areas, whilst the lack of opportunity has increased youth recruitment in terrorist organisations.
Between August and October 2022, an estimated 78 children had been forcibly recruited by armed groups, according to the UNHCR. Whether the arrival of refugees in neighbouring countries will spread conflict is “highly contextual,” but the host communities’ strain on resources undoubtedly makes the integration of Somalis more challenging. In April 2021, Kenyan authorities had already threatened to close the refugee camps, portraying them as a security threat, which contributed to eroding diplomatic relations between Somalia and its neighbours.
Displacement is likely to remain high in the short and long-term future. The military offensive against al-Shabaab will be pursued in South-West State and Jubaland, whilst the UNHCR evaluates the likelihood of immediate peace in Somaliland to be low. The current rainy season has brought some immediate relief, but the long-term climatic situation is unlikely to see significant improvement due to the impact of climate change and the anticipated rise in drought frequency.
The humanitarian needs of the displaced are also expected to worsen without a significant improvement in the relief missions’ funding or governmental effort. The immediate risk of famine has reduced due to the rainy season and the decrease in food prices. However, conflict over resources, forced recruitment, gender-based violence, and water-borne diseases brought by the floods will increase the migrants’ burden and complicate the resolution of this protracted situation.
It is unlikely that the Somalis displaced will be able to return to their places of origin. As pastoralist skills are not easily transferable to an urban environment and integration into host communities is becoming more difficult, this could cause massive confinement into camps and dependency on humanitarian assistance. Although the displaced in Somalia have demonstrated unpredictable resourcefulness in finding solutions and their agency should not be underestimated, climate change and international funding reduction will amplify the difficulties they will face in their struggle for survival.