Afghanistan + 2 more

UNHCR briefing notes: Somalis return from Ethiopia, Afghanistan

News and Press Release
Originally published
Briefer: Peter Kessler - Media Relations
This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva. Further information can be found on the UNHCR website,, which should also be checked for regular media updates on non-briefing days.


A UNHCR repatriation convoy yesterday took another 205 Somalis back to their homeland in a voluntary repatriation program that we hope will result in the closure by year's end of what was once the world's largest refugee camp - Hartisheik, in eastern Ethiopia.

At the end of the five-hour journey, local authorities were on hand to receive the returnees in Burao and Berbera outside Hargeisa, capital of the region called Somaliland. The convoy could be the last until after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins over the weekend.

In the meantime, Somaliland authorities, hobbled by a lack of resources, are attempting to arrange facilities for another 1,700 Somalis who remain in Hartisheik camp and who expect to return home by the end of December. Many of those still in Hartisheik have already turned in their ration cards in exchange for a repatriation grant of 320 Birr ($40) and food supplies in anticipation of their return.

Hartisheik camp was established in 1988 to shelter Somali refugees fleeing to Ethiopia to escape Somaliland's war of secession that had erupted earlier that year. By 1992, more than 600,000 Somalis had fled eastern Ethiopia following the collapse of the Siad Barre regime. Facing appalling conditions in the remote, semi-arid region, many died of exhaustion, hunger and lack of water.

UNHCR struggled to mobilize emergency assistance in the inhospitable region and soon managed bring some order in Hartisheik, setting up camps nearby, digging wells and offering medical services. One of the major problems in Hartisheik and its adjacent camps has been a lack of water. Water supplies that were brought in by tankers several kilometres away did not adequately meet the needs of refugees. The semi-desert region does not have any ground water.

As the situation in northwest Somalia improved in the late 1990s, UNHCR organised the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Hartisheik and other camps in Ethiopia back to Somalia. Many other Somali refugees have also returned home on their own.

Hartisheik, which was once the largest refugee camp in the world, is now nothing more than small clusters of ragged huts close to the Ethiopian border. Apart from the remaining 1,700 refugees who wish to return to Hargeisa, some 600 others, believed to be from southern parts of Somalia that are not yet safe for return, will be interviewed in November before being transferred to other sites in Ethiopia.


In Afghanistan, returning refugees participating in our shelter programme are working to construct tens of thousands of homes as temperatures start to drop across the mountainous country.

UNHCR is funding the construction of 52,000 basic homes across Afghanistan this year, including 1,500 individual units in Kabul, as well as the emergency rehabilitation of 24 public buildings in the Afghan capital which are currently sheltering squatters. This massive project should be enough to house more than 270,000 returning refugees who have been identified by our NGO partners as particularly in need of housing.

To date, 13,000 shelters have been completed, while another 27,000 are under construction. At this time of year, with most of the crops and fruit harvested, Afghans usually throw themselves into finishing their shelters. The poor condition of Afghan roads and bridges, local availability of building material and security problems in some rural areas that have hindered access and progress in certain parts of the country.

Long supply lines and port delays have also played a part in the delivery problems. In an effort to purchase items like roofing timbers, door and window frames and other supplies from environment-friendly suppliers we ordered items from Austria and South Africa, with the long distances complicating deliveries.

Afghans seeking to participate in the shelter programme are screened by our NGO partners working throughout Afghanistan. Families selected for the initiative must construct the walls of their homes. They then receive the timber for the roof and frames for the windows and doors. They also get a cash stipend (between $50-100) to assist them to build the shelters. This allows them to compensate for loss of income during construction or to pay for skilled labor or material, for example bricks. In the case of returnee families who may not be able to erect their shelter themselves the grant allows them to mobilize community help.

More than 541,000 Afghans have returned to their homeland so far this year, with Pakistan (332,000) and Iran (208,000) seeing the repatriation of the lion's share of Afghan refugees.

Last year, returning refugees built more than 40,000 shelters under UNHCR's 2002 reconstruction programme that helped over 200,000 families through their first Afghan winter back in decades.

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