(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

UNHCR close to phasing out operations in the east

[Ethiopia] Somali refugees in Ethiopia.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, shut down a camp in eastern Ethiopia on Wednesday after repatriating the last of its residents to Somaliland.

Aisha camp, which opened in 1989, was the seventh camp to close in the region since UNHCR began repatriations to the self-declared republic of Somaliland in 1997. In the early 1990s, there were 628,000 refugees in eight camps after hundreds of thousands of people fled civil war in Somalia following the overthrow of former President Siad Barre.

"This milestone brings us one step closer to phasing out our operations in eastern Ethiopia, an area which, 15 years ago, was the largest refugee-hosting area in the world," said Fernando Protti Alvarado, the UNHCR’s deputy regional, representative.

The last group of Somaliland refugees left Aisha on 28 May. On Monday, UNHCR handed over the camp and its assets to the government of Ethiopia.

The property included office buildings, a health centre, a bore hole, a powerhouse with a generator, a motorised water-pumping system, a school, a women's community centre, a grinding mill, a warehouse and a food-distribution centre.

Alvarado told local government representatives and elders that UNHCR would refurbish the health centre and school and replace the generator with a new one.

"It is up to the local government to take full responsibility for managing the facilities," he said.

Since UNHCR began repatriating refugees to Somaliland in 1997, most of the camps have been consolidated and finally closed. The remaining camp at Kebribeyah has over 10,000 refugees from different parts of Somalia. UNHCR said it expected to phase out operations in eastern Ethiopia once the situation in Somalia allowed for the voluntary repatriation of the residents of Kebribeyah.

Some 400,000 refugees returned home from Ethiopia on their own even before UNHCR began helping refugees repatriate to Somaliland.

Since then, 250,000 have gone home with UNHCR assistance. The agency also provided plastic sheeting, blankets, jerry cans, kerosene stoves and nine months’ supply of food to help returnees re-establish life back home.

"We are aware of the adverse impact on the environment as a result of the presence of refugees for the last 16 years," said Ayalew Aweke, a senior official from the Ethiopian government’s Authority for Refugees and Returnees Affairs. "However, this should be taken as a cost a nation must pay to honour its international obligations."

Currently there are 116,000 refugees in Ethiopia – the majority of whom are from Sudan.

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