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Somalia: In search of a better future

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Thousands of Somali refugees have fled their homes to escape violence only to find themselves stranded for years in overcrowded camps in Dadaab, northern Kenya, waiting for peace which continues to elude Somalia.

"Today I have seen children who have been born, raised and grown up in this camp. It's unacceptable from a human rights point of view," Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang told journalists during her visit to Dadaab refugee camp on 23 October.

She talked to children in the camp, many of them have spent their entire lives there, and urged them not to give up.

"Somalia is not a lost cause; it is a long term cause, and one that will require stamina, creativity and a concerted effort by the international community, civil society, and above all, Somali political leaders," Kang later said.

She also listened to the heartbreaking stories of new victims of the Somali conflict, who have been coming to the camp at a rate of some 5000 per month.

Three months ago, a human rights assessment mission on Somalia by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) interviewed newly arrived refugees in Dadaab.

A 34-year-old mid-wife spoke about her six-year-old son, who was killed in crossfire in Mogadishu while returning home from school at midday. She fled with her seven other children as well as two orphaned children, and gave birth to her latest child on her way to the camp. A 50-year-old school teacher lived in constant fear whether his three oldest children, aged 7, 9, and 13, would come home safely from school.

Shamsul Bari, Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Somalia, also recorded the plight of the Somali refugees in his September 2008 report to the Human Rights Council.

"They walked long distances, hitched rides on the back of trucks, paid for bus rides with scant money they could gather by different means or borrow from people, to reach safety in refugee camps in Kenya," the Independent Expert said.

"There were two families with large number of children whose fathers were killed in bombing or other attacks. A common factor was that they could not deal any more with the violence and fighting that raged around them most of the time. Some had to leave because their houses were razed to the ground by indiscriminate bombing.... In short, all were afflicted with utter hopelessness," he said.

The Deputy High Commissioner said the determination of Somali human rights defenders, humanitarian workers and members of civil society gave her hope for peace in Somalia.

"But any lasting peace in Somalia must be based on accountability and justice for the serious violations of human rights committed by all sides throughout the Somali conflict," said the Deputy High Commissioner.

"The Djibouti peace process should serve as a safeguard against amnesties for gross human rights violators, not a mechanism to let warlords off the hook. Broad participation of Somali civil society in the peace process, in particular women, who have borne the brunt of abuses, should help to ensure this," she added.

According to the United Nations refugee office (UNHCR), Dadaab camp has more than twice as many people as it should have. One of the world's oldest, biggest and most congested refugee camps, Dadaab is now home to more than 215,000 people - a 25 percent increase since the beginning of this year.