‘Worst humanitarian situation in the world’ – that’s why we need ‘protection sensitive’ borders - Refugee Council
February 7, 2008

‘Worst humanitarian situation in the world’ – that’s why we need ‘protection sensitive’ borders

By Sile – Policy Team

We’ve all heard of ‘sympathy fatigue’ and we’ve probably all experienced it at one time or another.  But it’s worth thinking about what happens when we let our frustration get the better of us and we all, collectively, look away.  Last week we got a reminder of one of great crises of recent times, but which has slipped off the news agenda, at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Refugees and Somaliland

The UNHCR Representative in Somalia, Mr Guillermo Bettochi, gave the assembled MPs, Peers and researchers a harrowing account of the 17 years of violence and civil war that have plagued Somalia since the collapse of Siad Barre’s government, and that have left over one million Somalis internally displaced.   

Horrific living conditions including a lack of shelter, food, sanitation and water and the constant threat of rape and physical attack, have resulted in Somalia being described as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”.

Unsurprisingly, many Somalis have chosen to flee the country altogether.  More than 300,000 Somalis are refugees in neighbouring countries.  They scrape out a living in impoverished countries including Ethiopia and Eritrea or head for more dangerous and unstable countries such as Sudan or Kenya. However, as borders to the west close, Somali and Ethiopian refugees must trek east across the country towards the Gulf of Aden and across the sea to Yemen.  Of the 30,000 people who fled Somalia via this route in 2007, more than 1,400 died or went missing en route.

Despite widespread news coverage of humanitarian disasters and civil wars such as that described above, people in countries like the UK often struggle to make the connection with the arrival of asylum seekers in their community.  Once again, we are looking away, and as we do the government adds another bolt to the gate.

In the process of tightening border controls both within and beyond the UK, it is sometimes refugees who lose out, as they are unable to reach a safe country in which to claim asylum.  That is why the Refugee Council is concerned to ensure that the UK’s borders are ‘protection-sensitive’, by which we mean they do not prevent refugees such as those fleeing war-torn Somalia, from reaching a country where their safety and protection is guaranteed.

All this means that the Refugee Council’s Protection-Sensitive Borders Project – including research in East Africa – could not be more timely.  We need to know the human cost of preventing people from leaving dangerous situations, and how we can influence Western nations to ensure that those who need sanctuary can get it.