Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Crisis and Displacement in Somalia

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Crisis and Displacement in Somalia

Article excerpt

Can displacement shocks offer opportunities to change the parameters of response to protracted refugee situations?

Somalia epitomises for many a situation of constant crisis, a 'black hole' of death and disaster undergoing a process of 'development in reverse'. Such images in a sense rob the Somali regions of the history of the last 20 years. It hides the realities of emerging sub-national political entities that have ensured a degree of civilian security in particular places at particular times. It misses the ways that people have adapted their behaviour and livelihoods to cope with insecurity and even to profit from the opportunities that conflict throws up.1 Life has gone on, albeit in ways that outsiders often find hard to imagine.

However, the dominant narrative of constant crisis inside Somalia has, according to critical reflections by aid workers, fostered a kind of functional ignorance among humanitarian agencies of Somalia's shifting political landscapes and the political impact of often poorly monitored aid distributions to internally displaced people. The overwhelming conception of the Somali situation in terms of an emergency has been misused as a justification for not learning lessons and for not thinking about the longterm consequences of compromises of humanitarian principles.2

Meanwhile, the protracted refugee situation in Kenya - the country that hosts the largest number of Somali refugees - is often characterised, like many protracted refugee situations, as chronic and static, with the refugees portrayed as passive people in limbo, warehoused in camps. While it is indeed true that the Somali refugee population remained fairly stable (in the region of 150,000) between 1999 and 2005, the reality is that the refugee situation has in fact been evolving, in terms of membership (with people moving back and forth from Somalia and onwards to new countries), demography (as people are born and die and children grow up in exile), geopolitics (with dwindling donor funds, the hardening of security concerns in Kenya and Somalia becoming a theatre for the unfolding of the war on terror) and as refugees seek their own solutions (searching for a means of living beyond the structures of the official refugee regime and humanitarian assistance, often via clandestine relocation to urban areas or to other countries).

However, the international response to the problems faced by Somali refugees did stagnate, dominated by strategies for containment which stifle the life chances of large numbers of people in limbo for nearly two decades. The lack of political will from Kenya and other members of the international community has been a key reason for the failure of initiatives such as the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Somali Refugees3 in the mid 2000s.

Thus, the common narratives of the situation in the country of origin as one of permanent crisis and upheaval, and the refugee situation as one of protracted stasis, which can be challenged on closer analysis, seem to have shaped international responses in important ways. Recent events in the Somali regions throw some light on this. The violence following the ousting of the Islamic Courts and the arrival of the (then) Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government (TGF) in 2007 prompted a massive displacement shock. Against a background where it had been possible for people in Mogadishu to cope - to a certain extent - with urban insecurity, they then experienced a major upheaval, many turning to migration as a survival strategy. Whole neighbourhoods emptied as people sought refuge elsewhere in the Somali territories and abroad. …

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