Largest Somali refugee camp closed

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has closed a refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia where an estimated 250,000 Somali refugees once lived, after the last 719 inhabitants left the settlement to return home to the self-declared autonomous republic of Somaliland.

The last refugees left Hartishek camp on 30 June in a convoy of UNHCR vehicles, heading for Hargeysa. They were being accommodated in a transit centre in Hargeysa while the authorities looked for an area to resettle them permanently, UNHCR said in a statement.

The closure of Hartishek camp comes after the repatriation of 230,147 refugees since April 1997. Many others have gone back on their own.

According to UNHCR, hundreds of thousands of Somalis flocked to Hartishek as the government of Muhammad Siyad Barre started to collapse in 1988, and subsequently when clan warfare engulfed the country in the early 1990s. The first refugees arrived in appalling conditions and many died of exhaustion, hunger and lack of water, the agency said.

At its peak, Hartishek hosted more than 250,000 refugees, mostly from the Gabiley and Hargeysa areas in north-western Somalia.

With Wednesday's closure, UNHCR said it planned to hand over the camp's facilities to the district government in eastern Ethiopia. They include a dam, schools, community and health centres, prefabricated warehouses, offices and residences.

There are still two camps for Somali refugees left in eastern Ethiopia: Aysha, from where convoys to northwestern Somalia are being run, and Kebri Beyah, which mostly hosts refugees from southern Somalia. These two camps, according to UNHCR, host some 24,400 refugees.

The agency needs more than US $5.7 million this year for its operations in Somalia, part of a $118 million joint appeal launched in February by UN agencies and NGOs working in the war-torn country.