In 2011-2012 Somalia was affected by a devastating famine—caused by ongoing insecurity, an unrelenting drought, and restricted humanitarian assistance—which exacerbated the country’s ongoing displacement crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Somalia’s estimated 1.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) have sought shelter in Mogadishu, but instead of finding safe refuge there, many of the displaced have encountered a hostile and abusive environment.
The Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and Human Rights Watch held a panel discussion about abuses of IDPs in Mogadishu, looking in particular at the interlinked security, justice, governance, and development challenges for the new government of Somalia. The session featured the presentation of a new report by Human Rights Watch on internal displacement in Mogadishu.
Meeting under Chatham House rules, over thirty participants from the U.S. government, United Nations agencies, and non-governmental humanitarian and development organizations contributed to the discussion. This followed presentations by the Institute for National Strategic Studies, Human Rights Watch, and USAID on the evolving political and security situation in Somalia, abuses of IDPs, and the humanitarian response.
There is optimism for Somalia’s future as the new government of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has had diplomatic successes and international support for his “six pillar policy.” But major concerns and challenges remain for the federal government as it does not have complete control within Mogadishu, let alone outside the capital. A heavy reliance on AMISOM and regional military continues. Clan conflicts and the development of a solid federal system remain major unresolved challenges as some authorities outside Mogadishu are at odds with the central government. Meanwhile, al-Shabaab is a shifting threat, as the organization plays a waiting game to see if political opposition to the new government will emerge in Mogadishu.
All this sets a precarious stage for the situation of the internally displaced in the capital. The government announced in January that it is planning to relocate Mogadishu’s tens of thousands of internally displaced people to the outskirts of the city, a proposition that raises significant human rights concerns, in addition to complex logistical and development challenges. Human Rights Watch’s new report details the existing serious abuses against IDPs, including physical attacks, restrictions on movement and access to food and shelter, and clan-based discrimination against the displaced in Mogadishu from the height of the famine in mid-2011 through 2012.
The Human Rights Watch report draws particular attention to the ways in which government forces, affiliated militia, and private parties, notably camp managers known as “gatekeepers” or “black cats,” prey upon vulnerable IDP communities. Rape and sexual abuse of displaced women and girls, including by government soldiers and militia members, has been an enormous problem in the unprotected environment of the camps. Gatekeepers and militias controlling the camps have also diverted and stolen food aid intended for famine-stricken camp residents, and in some cases have prevented IDPs from leaving the camps in order to attract greater humanitarian assistance for their own benefit. These abuses highlight the importance of systematically integrating protection and access to basic services into any relocation plans, and ensuring that the timeframe for the implementation of these plans is realistic.
The discussion highlighted the particular vulnerabilities facing IDPs from the Rahanweyn and Bantu communities, as well as those from minority groups within the predominant clans. Particularly in regions that were the most affected by the famine, lack of clan protection exacerbates IDPs’ physical insecurity, and their lack of access to key services. Clan membership, both of IDPs and of gatekeepers, must therefore be carefully taken into account in discussions of IDP protection. Participants also explored challenges surrounding security sector reform in Somalia, stressing the need for more in-depth donor engagement on this issue, and for international actors to exercise greater caution in determining which individuals and groups they support.