No Going Back

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A US-based rights group is calling for a fundamental change in approach to Somalia due to dramatic rates of urbanisation. In a new report, Refugees International says “the future trajectory of humanitarian, development and peace and security programming must pivot to reflect this new reality”.

The title of the document, ‘No Going Back’, reflects the core of the charity’s argument. Most of the millions of people fleeing from rural to urban areas are not going home, not now and not ever. Somalia has one of the highest rates of urbanisation in Africa. The United Nations estimates that there will be more people living in towns and cities than rural areas by 2026.

25-year-old Sahra Abdirahman Abdow is one such person. She is divorced, has seven children and fled to a camp in the capital Mogadishu two months ago.

“We left our village because there was no rain. I did not own the land I farmed. I want to stay in the city in order to save my children and give them an education. I don’t want them to suffer the hardships of life in rural areas. I want to start a new life by opening a small business but I will need support to do so.”

Refugees International urges the humanitarian community to adopt “an urban-centric approach to resilience”. It says the focus needs to be on helping communities displaced from rural areas to learn new skills to enable them to make a living in towns and cities as that is where their future lies. According to the report, “as pastoralists pour into cities, the skills from their rural vocations will generally not translate to urban life”.

As a 50-year-old former farmer who lives in an internally displaced people’s (IDP) camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu said, “We do not have a good life here because we do not know how to look for work in the city”. Three of his seven children died of hunger due to drought and he says he had no choice but to abandon life on his farm.

However, the recommendation to support displaced populations to live permanently in Somalia’s towns and cities throws up as many questions as it answers. What will happen to rural areas if they are permanently abandoned? Will the multiple armed groups operating in Somalia take advantage of the vacuum? Will a focus on providing livelihoods in urban areas encourage those who choose to remain in rural settings to move to the cities putting further pressure on housing, employment opportunities and physical and social infrastructure? What will happen if nomads and farmers lose their skills forever?

One of the authors of the report, Sarah Miller, says “by no means would we advocate those in [rural] areas being forgotten or ignored”. But she says that, as urbanisation becomes more pronounced, “the current approach misses large portions of people who need protection and assistance. As the vast majority of people head to urban areas, there is a mix of old and new IDPs, who have drastically different needs alongside the larger population of urban poor, who are also in great need.”

However, Somalia’s drought envoy Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame said it would be wrong to give so much attention to IDPs in urban areas: “The focus should be on the root causes of the problems that cause the displacement, not the symptoms. People should be helped before they flee rural areas. Conflict, climate change and food insecurity are the main causes of displacement and it is these problems that need to be solved. Otherwise, the crisis will last forever.”

For many of Somalia’s nearly four million displaced people – which is close to a quarter of the country’s population – life in urban areas is little or no better than their lives as farmers or nomads. Most live in shelters made from wooden branches, plastic sheeting and old cloth in camps on the outskirts of towns and cities. Unlike most countries with large displaced populations concentrated in a few large settlements, Somalia has more than 2,400 sites, 85 percent of which are informal camps on private land. As pressure grows on urban space, tens of thousands of people have been forcibly evicted from these camps in recent years.

The Somali government estimates that the rate of unemployment is about 70 percent. How will the recently displaced find work in urban areas, especially as so many of them lack suitable skills? Many seek unskilled jobs as labourers, porters and cleaners but there is substantial competition for such roles, which pay between about $2 to $4 a day.

53-year-old Abdiqadir Mohamed has been living in an IDP camp in Mogadishu for a year. All his animals died after the river in his home area of Lower Shabelle dried up.

“I came here with my wife and 10 children. I walked for a week without shoes. Sometimes I get work in construction but it is regular,” he says. My wife sometimes cleans houses and washes clothes.”

“I have no plans to go back to the countryside even though it is a challenge for me to live in a city as I only know how to live a rural life.”

Many of those they compete with are also defined as IDPs. Some have been living in camps in urban areas for more than three decades, since the outbreak of civil war in late 1980s and early 1990s leading some to ask when is a displaced person no longer displaced? As Refugees International points out “many long-standing IDPs more closely resemble urban poor and have a different set of needs than new arrivals”.

There is also the issue of insecurity, even in so-called government-controlled areas with armed groups and individuals continuing to stage attacks in towns and cities. As Refugees International says, “many aid actors are largely cut off from large portions of the population due to security constraints, even in the capital city”. Its report quotes aid workers who say they are almost completely cut off from the displaced. One UN worker said “there are some IDPs, especially in minority groups, that we’ve never even spoken to or reached in any way over the years”. Another said “there are some IDPS – even here in Mogadishu – that have never seen an NGO in their life”.

Somalia is enduring its worst drought in four decades. According to Refugees International, “The leading cause of internal displacement in Somalia is currently the effects of climate change”. The country has experienced an unprecedented number of failed rainy seasons followed by devastating floods which have led to the deaths of three quarters of the country’s livestock population. Unlike in previous droughts, many nomads cannot afford to replenish their herds. Their way of life has been destroyed forever, even though pastoralism is still seen by many Somalis as the most noble and honourable way of living.

According to the United Nations, 79 percent of internally displaced Somalis are women and children. They are vulnerable to sexual violence; shelters in IDP camps are flimsy structures with no such thing as a door with a lock.

Like so many of those living in IDP camps, 60-year-old Hawa Sagar lives in a female-headed household. She fled drought in Kurtubalay district with her daughter who has six children. She says she has no plans to return to her village.

“My daughter works as a maid while I look after the children,” she says. “We don’t have any help at all. We need housing, food, water and toilets.”

Refugees International says IDP women need to be given more power in decision making, partly because they make up the majority of the displaced and partly because corruption decreases and aid is more likely to reach those who need it most when it is put in women’s hands.

Refugees International’s recommendations include shifting to what are known as ‘area-based approaches’ whereby the focus moves away from targeting individuals to looking at a wider population within a given geography so that the needs of the urban poor, long-term IDPs and new arrivals can all be addressed.

For many, including Abdiqadir who came to Mogadishu a year ago, there is no way back. “The city is my future. There is no way I can return to my old way of life. I have to adapt to urban life.”


By Hinda Abdi Mohamud

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