Somalia: Policy overhaul required

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Somalia is the world's worst humanitarian disaster and aid agencies are unable to respond to the immense scale of needs. The insecurity preventing assistance is a consequence of failed international political and diplomatic efforts. To stabilize the situation in south central Somalia, U.S. policy requires a complete overhaul, prioritizing humanitarian concerns over narrow counterterrorism objectives. Neighboring countries are bearing the brunt of the refugee outflow and more needs to be done to help them. For example, in Djibouti, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) should increase its protection staff as well as identify and provide services to urban refugees in Djibouti city.

Somalia is the world's worst humanitarian disaster. More than 3.2 million Somalis - 40% of the population - are dependent on external assistance, and 400,000 people have sought refuge in neighboring countries.

While the situation has deteriorated in the past two years, the last months have seen worsening indicators: more than 1.3 million Somalis are now displaced within the country; 35,000 fled from the capital in October alone; 10,000 Somali refugees crossed the border into Kenya in September; and one in six children under five years old in the southern part of the country is malnourished.

Exacerbating the problem has been the extreme difficulty in providing assistance. Somalia has always been a challenging operating environment for aid agencies, but it has now become one of the most dangerous places for humanitarian workers, alongside Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 30 staff from non-governmental organizations and UN agencies have been killed this year alone, as well as many journalists and human rights defenders.

While the responsibility for this crisis lies first and foremost with the Somali leadership, the international community, principally the U.S. government and members of the UN Security Council, has also failed in its duty to protect the Somali people. They have failed repeatedly to take a principled engagement to solve the crisis, acknowledge the power realities on the ground, support peace negotiations without imposing external agendas, or provide independent humanitarian assistance.

This lack of principled engagement is demonstrated by the U.S. and the European Union's response to the piracy problems of the coast of Somalia. The root cause of the piracy is lawlessness inside Somalia, an environment where accountability means little and where the traditional clan linkages are giving way to the law of the gun. Maritime patrols, whether by individual countries, NATO, or mercenary operatives, do little to stem the motivation behind those attacks. Moreover, the speed and resolve with which piracy has been addressed by the UN Security Council underlines Somalis' sentiment that economic interests trump humanitarian concerns. The United States swiftly and sternly condemned the pirates, and yet remains silent over egregious war crimes committed during the civil war.

Thanks to the efforts of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, political negotiations have been ongoing between Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the moderates in the opposition, mainly the Djibouti-based Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS). After several rounds of talks, an agreement was signed in late October 2008 calling for a ceasefire and joint security operations.

The inclusion of the opposition was a welcome recognition, albeit a late one, that the TFG was slowly slipping into irrelevance. However the reluctance to include hardliners, who control much of south central Somalia, runs the risk of making the agreement largely symbolic. Until parties hoping to broker peace in Somalia find a way to engage these groups, including Al Shabaab, an Islamic group designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. State Department, the security situation will make humanitarian assistance near impossible.

Policy Recommendations

-The incoming U.S. Administration should overhaul U.S. policy towards Somalia by taking a comprehensive regional approach, prioritizing the provision of humanitarian assistance and calling for a truly inclusive political process.

-The U.S. should provide non-earmarked funding that allows UNHCR to allocate funding in the Horn of Africa where it is most needed.

-UNHCR Djibouti should maintain daily protection staff presence in the Ali Addeh camp.

-UNHCR Djibouti should start an outreach program for urban refugees.