Somalia: providing essential tracing service despite harsh conditions
The Somali Red Crescent continues to provide tracing services to the beleaguered Somali population, in spite of mounting security concerns. South-north migration is exacerbating an already dire situation. The ICRC's Bernard Barrett talks with the President of the Somali Red Crescent Society, Dr Ahmed Mohamed Hassan, in this excerpt of the interview published in the Arabic-language magazine, "Al Insani".
Dr Ahmed, I think most people are aware of the problems facing the people of Somalia, the turmoil, the conflicts, the natural disasters. But could you explain to people who are not familiar with Somalia why they need the tracing services so much?
Well I think definitely the Somali situation is very complex. Most of the time people also think that the whole issue started in 1991, but perhaps it's better to go back to 1978 because the first war between Somalia and Ethiopia produced quite a big number of prisoners taken by both sides. In fact, historically these prisoners had the longest detention in the world in terms of wars between countries. We had a movement of population on both sides in Ethiopia and in Somalia. Families and members of families lost each other and that was where the whole story started. But then in 1991, we had the collapse of the Somali state and this brought a major movement of population inside and outside the country. Millions of Somalis were displaced internally (IDPs) and hundreds of thousands, even millions fled outside the country to places like Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti down to Yemen and then after that to the north especially western Europe and North America, particularly Canada.
So as family members got lost, this created a need for contact between the family members of this huge movement of population inside and outside of Somalia. Right now we are still in the middle of this situation, but there is also a new phenomenon of immigration and people moving this time for different reasons… poverty, internal conflict, trying to find opportunities outside their country. So all these complex situations created the need to maintain or restore contact amongst these family members.
Given the difficulties in Somalia now whether it is security, transportation, communications, how do you manage to collect and distribute all these messages and deal with tracing requests?
Definitely it is very challenging today in Somalia and particularly in areas of central and southern Somalia where the conflict is still very intense. There is a high degree of conflict and inter-clan fighting and guns are readily available. We have a number of freelance militias. Security is a very serious issue, definitely for everybody including us. Travelling is very difficult because of these security restraints. Nevertheless, I think the Somali Red Crescent Society is present and operating in all regions of the country with branches and sub-branches and a large number of volunteers. We are part of the community. We are living with the people, whenever they move, we move with them, when they suffer, we suffer with them. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, in particular the Somali Red Crescent and the ICRC, were really the ones who delivered humanitarian assistance from 1991 to 1993, when large-scale starvation was at hand, when nearly all Somalis were depending on
All of these interventions have enabled us to establish good contact with the people. I think we have done our best to really show that on the ground we are delivering on the basis of the principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, i.e. the principles of impartiality and neutrality. There is wide acceptance of the national society everywhere in the country including Somaliland, Puntland, and the south-central area. That said, it is still difficult in terms of security for staff and volunteers to move from place to place in the country, as both remain a part of a very fragmented Somali society.
You have five thousand volunteers who are really the backbone of this operation. How do you keep them? They do not earn money, so what motivates them?
This is a very challenging question for humanitarian actors worldwide, and no less so for the Somalia Red Crescent Society. First and foremost, because volunteers are operating on the principle of voluntary service, they are very committed to the basic principles of the Red Cross and Crescent Movement and this motivates them. Secondly, I think they appreciate their work and they are often confronted with some very moving situations. They deliver concrete services in a very humane and empathetic manner.
They deliver letters and Red Cross messages as well as other services which make them happy as they bring news and sometimes joy to people's lives. What we have learned over the years is that when family members lose contact with each other, it is a very painful exercise. When you are really able to deliver and bring two parts of a separated family together, it is a very rewarding experience.
During the last year, there has been an increase or renewal in fighting and more natural disasters. To what extent has this affected your activities both in terms of volume and access to certain areas?
Tracing remains a huge activity in the Somali Crescent Society, despite the challenges. As we know, a large number of people in 2007 fled Mogadishu to surrounding areas or to other areas of Somalia and even outside the country. There has been a huge increase in the number of people requesting news from family members. In 2006, 4,850 Red Cross messages (RCM) were exchanged. Now if we make some sort of project ion to the end of 2007, we are talking about a figure of over 6,400 RCM collected. This represents an increase of 34 per cent. Then there is the distribution of messages which is, as I said, very much a matter of security.
The security situation has deteriorated immensely in Mogadishu and outside Mogadishu to the south. Last year, for example, from January to December 2006 we distributed over 12,000 Red Cross messages. Our projection for the whole of 2007 is that more than 10,700 will be distributed. This means a decrease of 11 per cent. This is strictly due to security constraints that we must get around, which are really having an impact on our work.
With regard to tracing activities, what are the priorities of the Somali Red Crescent for 2008?
I think that the effect of the conflict and other major disasters in Somalia will definitely continue to call on our tracing engagement for the long-term. But we are also seeing some new dimensions of tracing which are now shaping up especially in relation to the issue of international migration. This is a new dimension. Historical immigration, however, is not new. In many countries, especially in the north, only a small percentage of the population are originally from there, the rest are descendents of migrants.
We all know that when immigration began it happened more or less for the same reasons as it does today: intolerance or war in the country of origin, starvation and so on. What is novel are the south-north migrations, with all their humanitarian consequences. Most of the time people think of migration only in terms of impact on the destination. To me, migration is a kind of a process. It starts from somewhere, there is the migration route with all its problems, death and misery and then there is the destinat ion. Today the media focuses on the destination. We see people in southern Europe, all these boats. But the problem is larger than that, because even in the place of origin, migration is a problem.
There are problems in terms of migration routes. This is something we are experiencing in the Somali port of Bosaso in Puntland, where the migration to Yemen is starting. People are coming from Ethiopia, they are coming from Eritrea, they are coming from the southern part of Somalia, they are even coming from Kenya and Tanzania. These people migrate through Bosaso. If you look to the port of Bosaso, you see people today from all parts of the Horn of Africa, taking this short trip through a place where all these disasters are happening, where people packed in small boats are dying every day.
To my mind migration is a huge problem and definitely calls for tracing services because people are losing family members and many are dying. And then there is the dignity of these people. The protection issues are real. We already know that IDPs are not well protected and now the migration brings another category of people who are not protected. Migration is very important in terms of tracing, as it is a service that migrants need and will continue to need.