Highlights of briefing by UN Emergency Relief Coordinator on the humanitarian situation in Somalia

News and Press Release
Originally published
GENEVA, 26 April 2007 - John Holmes, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefed journalists on the "very critical and dangerous" humanitarian situation in Somalia, where he said "the rules of international humanitarian law are being flouted by all sides in Mogadishu". He also responded to questions on the humanitarian situations in Darfur and Iraq. Mr. Holmes was accompanied by Kasidis Rochanakorn, Director of the Geneva office of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

"We have seen in the last 10 days or so some of the worst fighting in Mogadishu that the city has seen in the last 15 or 16 years," said Mr. Holmes. "The result is that a very high proportion of the population has fled Mogadishu." The number of displaced was estimated to be around 340 to 350,000, representing roughly a third of the city's population. This was the largest displacement of people in the world this year. "As usual, civilians are caught in the crossfire. There is indiscriminate shelling and we've seen missiles hitting hospitals I think even yesterday. So the situation is really critical inside Mogadishu."

The humanitarian community only had access to around 60,000 of the 350,000 or so who had fled, who were essentially those who were most vulnerable, including the women, children and the elderly. They were fleeing into the surrounding villages and towns where they had little access to food, clean water or medical care. "Getting aid to them is proving very difficult for obvious reasons of insecurity because the roads are subject to military action in an unpredictable way," said Mr. Holmes. "But we've also had some problems of difficulties of coordination with the interim Government, the Transitional Government in Mogadishu. As I've already mentioned before, there was a WFP food distribution, which was halted because the Government said they had not inspected the food themselves, which seems inappropriate in an emergency situation."

In addition, humanitarian workers had been having problems in getting access to some of the smaller airports near Mogadishu, while Mogadishu airport itself was effectively out of bounds for security reasons. Mr. Holmes said that a meeting had taken place on Monday, 23 April, between the UN Country Team in Somalia and representatives of the Transitional Government, resulting in agreement in principle that access would be given to these airports and that, in general, the humanitarian community would not be impeded in carrying out its task. "But we are waiting to see whether that agreement in principle is translated into practice."

"The immediate need is an end to the fighting," said Mr. Holmes. The Secretary-General had appealed for an immediate ceasefire earlier in the week.

Even before the latest very rapid outflow of people from Mogadishu, there had been serious health concerns in southern and central Somalia. The combination of Accute Watery Diarrhea, of which 17,000 cases had been confirmed this year, and cholera had claim more than 600 lives this year. "A particular concern is that the rainy season is approaching, which will obviously exacerbate these health problems very considerably," said Mr. Holmes.

Mr. Holmes reiterated that the current problem was not so much a question of resources but rather of access and security. Nevertheless, he appealed to donors to react generously to the appeal for Somalia, which had been revised upward on 19 April 2006 to US$ 262 million, of which US$ 90 million had already been received from donors. The one problem was that the money that had been given so far was very much concentrated in the food area while the health care aspect of the appeal was only funded to the tune of 4%. Mr. Holmes recalled that the current crisis came on top of a long-running humanitarian problem in Somalia, with some one million people dependent on humanitarian aid.

Asked for his assessment of the humanitarian situation in Darfur, Mr. Holmes said that his conclusion from his visit there was that this largest humanitarian relief operation in the world had in some ways been "relatively successful" in stabilizing the conditions of the more than 2 million people who had been displaced and the 2 million more who had been affected by the conflict. "But this humanitarian effort is fragile because of insecurity, because of bureaucratic obstacles that the Sudanese Government were putting in the way of the humanitarian operation, because of fatigue and moral problems, so that we need a major effort to keep it going." On this issue of bureaucratic obstacles, Mr. Holmes said that a recent agreement with the Sudanese authorities had resulted in some improvement with regard to, for instance, processing visas, and work permits and stay permits, and customs clearance. "But we're not yet in a position of full implementation of this agreement and that is precisely what we need and will continue pressing for." The first meeting of the committee established to monitor implementation of the agreement would take place on Monday, 30 April.

Mr. Holmes was asked whether the announcement last week by High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres of UNHCR's plan to send an international staff member back to Baghdad was part of a wider humanitarian plan to increase the international presence in Baghdad. Mr. Holmes responded that the humanitarian situation in Iraq was very serious and deteriorating and the United Nations was devising an operational plan to increase its operations inside Iraq. "For obvious reasons, operating inside Iraq for international staff, and in particular for UN staff - because the UN's reputation in Iraq is very poor for all sorts of reasons to do with the past - is very difficult. So I don't want to suggest that there is going to be any kind of significant return of international staff of the humanitarian agencies to Iraq... We'll be looking at how we can step up our operations in Iraq. That may involve some partial return of international staff. Most of it will probably be through working through national staff as it is now. But that is precisely what we need to look at."

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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