UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Wednesday 17 March 2004

ERITREA: Eking out a living in Emkulu

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


Halima Abdi Adam in the Emkulu refugee camp, near Massawa

MASSAWA, 17 Mar 2004 (IRIN) - As the blazing sun mercilessly beats down on her, Halima Abdi Adam squints and tries to find some shade under a shrivelled tree.

She is one of over 3,200 Somali refugees who have ended up in the Emkulu refugee camp on the outskirts of the Eritrean port city of Massawa. She has just been taking part in festivities to mark the 8 March International Women’s Day – a welcome diversion from the tedium of daily life as a refugee.


Emkulu, administered by the Eritrean Office of Refugee Affairs (ORA), which in turn is funded by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), was originally intended as a transit centre for Eritrean returnees from Sudan. Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have been applying for voluntary repatriation from camps in eastern Sudan which, for many of them, have been their homes for 30 years since they fled the fighting of Eritrea’s liberation war.

When hostilities again broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998, however, the Somali refugees, who were initially in the Assab area, were once more on the move, fleeing conflict. The Bure front, around Assab, saw some of the fiercest fighting of the bitter two-year war between the Horn of Africa neighbours.

"There were 2,300 refugees at the Harsile camp in Assab," explains Iyob Ghebrenegus, the coordinator of Emkulu camp. "About 1,300 came here to Emkulu, the rest went to other countries. They were really on the front line."

Emkulu was established as a refugee camp in 2000 when the fighting was raging around Assab. In subsequent years, more and more Somali refugees arrived spontaneously, many of them having walked hundreds of miles from Somalia to Djibouti and then into Eritrea.

Halima – the mother of six children aged between five and 16 - says she fled her country eight years ago, having witnessed the murder of her father and brother by Somali militias. At the time, she was living in Afgoye on the outskirts of the capital, Mogadishu, where law and order had completely broken down following the ouster of President Siyad Barre in 1991.

She says civilians were constantly caught up in the crossfire as rival militias fought for control. "No-one could live there," she recalls. "We had no choice but to flee." She arrived in Eritrea - partly on foot, partly by lorry - via Ethiopia when the border between the two countries was still open.

Now, she says, she still has no choice. "Beggars can’t be choosers. We live here with what we have."

Life in Emkulu can be very difficult because of the harsh climate and relentless sun. "Life is totally different here," Halima points out. "In Somalia, I was a person, I had property."

She however says that even if there was a repatriation she would not choose to return. She has witnessed terrible atrocities in her homeland and is too afraid that the events can be repeated over and over again.


Some of the refugees in Emkulu are from the so-called "lower classes" of Somalia and have always faced discrimination and marginalisation back home.

Halima is one of them. She comes from the Midgan or Madiban clan – traditionally hunter-gatherers, now associated with trades such as blacksmithing or cobbling. Unlike many of the Somali clans, they have no geographical area in the country and are scattered throughout the various regions.

Many of them leave simply in search of a better life abroad. The ongoing Somali peace process doesn’t concern them, says one refugee leader speaking in excellent English. He is a teacher in the camp.

Even if the sides make peace and an interim charter is adopted later this month, it will not change anything for the Midgan – a term, he says, is used pejoratively by Somalis to describe his clan. The peace process in Somalia has to go way beyond agreement between the major clans; to succeed, it must also usher in a climate of equity for all Somalis. Otherwise, there will never be any point in going back, he adds.

Late last year, UNHCR and ORA began registering refugees in the country, some of whom had been in Eritrea for 10 years, leading many to believe that repatriation was in the offing. UNHCR said at the time that the new data would enable the Eritrean government and the agency to better tailor assistance and protection to the refugees’ needs. The refugee agency also acknowledged that it would take a closer look at options for voluntary repatriation to certain areas of Somalia deemed safe for return.

Eritrea has no legislation governing the issue of refugees, but it has accommodated refugees arriving at its borders and respects the right of "non-refoulement", meaning no forced returns. The country grants the right of prima facie recognition to groups of refugees.


Meanwhile in Emkulu, ORA and UNHCR are providing the tools to help the refugees help themselves through a community services section.

In the camp, blacksmiths forge the tools needed for everyday life, seamstresses are provided with training and sewing machines so that they can then sell the products they make, teachers are sent to Asmara university for refresher courses, women are trained as midwives and receive certification to deliver babies safely in the camps.

Interestingly, these women refuse to perform traditional female circumcision or female genital mutilation (FGM) in the camp.

"We have to stop this practice," says Ambia Salad Hassan, proudly displaying her certificate, signed by the Eritrean government and UNHCR, which registers her credentials as a midwife.

She says the most difficult deliveries are among women who had earlier been circumcised. "We do not perform circumcision in the camp," she stresses. "We are fighting against it, with the help of the teachers who can educate the people."

But, she admits, the women still face a lot of opposition from the proponents of traditional circumcision. "Our husbands think that if we are not circumcised, we just go around with every man," she says.

Ambia and her fellow midwives stress the need for a campaign, supported by international players, if the practice is to be stamped out.


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