Monday February 12, 2018
As new crises and humanitarian disasters develop, “old ones” tend to move out of the spotlight and become “forgotten”.
After decades of war and famine, more than one million Somalis are displaced within their own country and close to that number beyond its borders. And, as the world’s attention moves on to other emergencies, such as in Yemen, Syria and South Sudan, the situation for Somalis remains dire.
To counter this challenge, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees appointed Ambassador Mohamed Abdi Affey as his special envoy for the Somali refugee situation in 2016. Since then Affey has travelled extensively to countries near and far where Somalis have sought refuge, taking part in regional dialogues to ensure refugees’ support, protection and right to a dignified life.
Last week he was in South Africa where he spoke to Somalis in Pretoria and Cape Town to learn of their experiences, and held meetings with government officials to help find ways to address some of the administrative challenges that they face.
During a press briefing at the UNCHR (the UN refugee agency) office in Pretoria on Thursday, Affey said it was important to remember that “nobody chooses to be a refugee”. But the reality was that circumstances could be such that there was no other option for residents but to leave what they knew, and live in exile in the hope that the situation would improve so they could return. If it did not, people became “trapped in exile” for decades, he said.
With so many humanitarian crises happening simultaneously around the world, there was a sense of hopelessness and fatigue as news headlines and relief organisations’ attention shifted elsewhere.
There are approximately 30000 Somalis living in South Africa, and by Affeys account, they were content and grateful to the government and local communities for the country’s liberal asylum legislation and general acceptance of refugees. The xenophobic attacks of recent years and administrative difficulties aside, they were happy to have access to work, health and education, and to live within communities, which was preferable to refugee camps as was the case in the Dadaab camp in Kenya, home to more than hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled civil war, drought and famine and where the reduction of donor support has been keenly felt.