Conflict and heavy floods force tens of thousands of people to flee their homes in Somalia, amidst COVID-19 threat

Heavy flooding, conflict, a crippled economy, impending desert locust swarms and the exponential spread of COVID-19 are threatening the safety and welfare of Somalia’s 2.6 million internally displaced people (IDPs.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, fears these multiple, compounding emergencies will lead to devastating consequences unless there is a strong and coordinated response from the international community, national and local Somali authorities and humanitarian actors to meet the massive humanitarian needs.

Since the start of this year, more than 220,000 Somalis have become internally displaced, including 137,000 due to conflict. Natural and climate-related disasters including drought and resulting lack of livelihoods and floods are additional complex and interlinked drivers of displacement.

In South and Central Somalia, flash floods and the beginnings of riverine flooding caused by the seasonal Gurains have already displaced an estimated 90,000 with additional displacement expected, worsening significant pre-existing humanitarian needs faced by IDPs and host communities. If current trends continue, this year’s rains give every indication that they could pose the same catastrophic threat as the Deyr rains of 2019, which led to more than 400,000 people being forced to flee their homes. Swarms of desert locusts, the most destructive migratory insect in the world, threaten to decimate crop yields and cause widespread food shortages post the Gu rains.

Earlier this week, UNHCR and the Government of Somalia airlifted emergency assistance, including jerry cans, soap, blankets, sleeping mats, kitchen sets and plastic sheets, to help over 8,000 people in Baidoa, Bardheere and Qardho. A second airlift delivering aid in Qardho, Bardheere, Beletweyn, and Berdale is set to take place as early as today, with UNHCR’s assistance expected to reach a total 37,000 individuals.

In March and April, armed operations against Al Shabab resumed in Lower Shabelle, resulting in more than 50,000 people being forced to flee their homes. Communities were directly exposed to crossfire and mortar attacks in their villages, and roadside explosions while in flight. Recruitment of children, gender-based violence including rape, and arbitrary arrest where also reported. In Gedo, Jubaland State, fighting between various parties to the conflict in the region also forced an estimated 40,000 people to flee their homes in Belet Xawoo in early March.

UNHCR believes the humanitarian situation will worsen as COVID-19 further spreads. Most of the 2.6 million IDPs in Somalia live in overcrowded settlements and many, especially those newly displaced, live in makeshift shelters made of plastic bags, cardboards and sticks. Physical and social distancing is close to impossible, and there is scarcely enough clean water for drinking, let alone hand-washing. Conditions are ripe for widespread viral transmission.

The Government of Somalia has initiated COVID-19 testing across the country. However, decades of conflict, together with a global shortage of testing kits, has left the country’s health infrastructure in a precarious position to respond should the virus spread rapidly. Despite Somalia having 928 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the general population, there has been only one confirmed case amongst the IDP population so far.

Many Somali IDPs have seen their incomes plummet as COVID-19 prevention measures have led to job losses or reductions in working hours, particularly for daily wage workers and people working in markets. UNHCR has observed that refugees are amongst the first to lose their jobs. At the same time, food prices are rising while remittances, a lifeline for millions of Somalis, are in stark decline.

UNHCR urges the international community to come forward with further funding for humanitarian agencies and the Government of Somalia in this time of crisis. Yesterday, as part of the wider UN appeal, UNHCR urged States, the private sector and individual donors to provide US$745 million for our COVID-19 appeal to protect and assist displaced populations around the world.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

In Nairobi, Dana Hughes, [email protected], +254 733 440 536
In Nairobi, Njoki Mwangi, [email protected], +254 720 134 103