UNICEF Somalia relief efforts hindered by lack of access to conflict-affected areas

By Blue Chevigny

NEW YORK, USA, 25 April 2007 - Somalia's security situation has been in a steady decline since the beginning of 2007 - along with all the consequent health and protection issues for children and families.

In the past two weeks, however, the crisis has intensified, with an upsurge in violence in capital, Mogadishu, and surrounding areas. The human toll of the crisis is enormous. UNICEF and other UN agencies and partners are finding their efforts to reach vulnerable populations hindered by a lack of access to the city and those fleeing it.

"The situation in Mogadishu is the most difficult situation that Somalia has faced in 16 years," says UNICEF Representative in Somalia Christian Balslev-Olesen. "More than 321, 000 people from the capital city are displaced."

Cholera outbreak causes concern

Most of those displaced are children and women. Unfortunately, UNICEF and other aid organizations cannot reach them in nearly the numbers that are needed.

"Our staff can't even get to our warehouse in Mogadishu," says Mr. Balslev-Olesen. "Thousands are on the run from the city, and we cannot provide them the most basic needs of food, shelter, protection, health care."

In terms of the health needs of displaced Somalis, one major concern is a recent cholera outbreak. In the past two months alone, UNICEF has recorded 17,000 cases of the deadly waterborne disease.

"UNICEF is trying its best to bring chlorination to the affected communities, as well as informing them about cholera's threat," explains Mr. Balslev-Olesen. "In the aftermath of the extreme flooding of the end of 2006, we still have not recovered." The widespread floods in December affected over 300,000 people already suffering from the effects of the country's ongoing civil conflict.

'Not just business as usual'

UNICEF has succeeded in providing some aid to families displaced by the violence in Mogadishu, including Family Relief Kits - consisting of blankets, jerry cans to carry water, plastic sheets, cooking sets and soap - distributed to at least 7,300 households. These families have also received insecticide-treated mosquito nets to prevent malaria.

"We are still far from reaching out to all," laments Mr. Balslev-Olesen. But following a meeting yesterday with Somali Government leaders in the capital, he feels some progress is being made towards securing better access to vulnerable populations.

"They understood their responsibility to see that we have access to our warehouse and its aid supplies, to airstrips so we can enter the country help stop harassment of humanitarian workers," says Mr. Balslev-Olesen.

Still, the UNICEF Representative cautions against complacency on the part of the international community, who might lump together what's happening in Somalia now with the strife the country has experienced for years. "People are used to seeing Somalia as a failed state," he says, "but it's not just business as usual here now. Somalia is experiencing something the people have never seen before."