DOOLOW, Somalia — UN refugee agency chief Antonio Guterres said Tuesday that relief groups should increase aid to war-battered and drought-hit Somalis to reduce the exodus to neighbouring countries.
"We're helping more than 800,000 Somali refugees in the countries around Somalia, but we should not aim at emptying Somalia," Guterres said during a visit to Somalia's Doolow area, near the border with Ethiopia.
Doolow is the main exit point for Somalis from Bay, Bakool and Gedo regions fleeing to Ethiopia to escape war and a severe drought currently ravaging the country, with the UN declaring famine in five Somali regions.
"Our objective is to create conditions for Somalis to be able to live in Somalia and for Somali refugees, when they have the opportunity, to go back home safely," Guterres added.
Many displaced Somalis have found refuge in Doolow, a dusty town of some 30,000, as relief agencies provide food, health care and shelter to them.
UN refugee agency workers were distributing tents, utensils and beddings, while the UN children agency and the World Food Programme provided food.
The town is under the control of pro-Somali government militia, and its closeness to Ethiopia also offers some security that has enabled humanitarian groups to operate with relative ease.
However, much of southern Somalia is controlled by Al-Qaeda-inspired Shebab rebels who have been fighting to overthrow the government, and who have been blamed for worsening conditions by restricting aid delivery in their regions.
The extreme drought and relentless conflict have hit Somalia hardest among the drought-affected Horn of Africa countries.
Malnutrition rates there are the highest in Africa, and it faces the world's worst humanitarian crisis according to the UN.
Tens of thousands of Somalis have in recent months fled to camps in Ethiopia and Kenya due to the drought, the Horn of Africa's worst in decades.
"As important as the right to seek asylum is the resolve for the international community... to do everything they can for the Somalis to have the right to choose to live in their own country," Guterres said.
Somalia has been mired in a bloody civil war since fall of then-president Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, and the several governments that have been formed since have failed to assert nationwide authority.
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