He has lived there ever since. “I could never go back to Ethiopia, my life would be in danger,” he says, now aged 28. “I worry for my wife and my son. But here it’s dangerous now, too.”
Assefa is one of a group of 1700 Ethiopian political refugees living in Hargeisa. Initially, life here wasn’t all that bad. Most of the asylum seekers were living in ordinary houses. Others were housed at the Social Welfare Centre under the care of the NGO Save the Children.
They were all protected by international law, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) gave a number of them a subsistence allowance. Early this year, however, UNHCR stopped providing cases with assistance, the idea being to stimulate people to integrate more in Somaliland society.
Some of the group found steady work upon arriving in Hargeisa, taking advantage of their good education in Ethiopia. They found jobs as teachers, construction workers, waiters or cooks. The most successful asylum seekers even managed to assume positions of power as businessmen or financial managers.
But many still were not suitable for employment, as they were poorly educated or not educated at all. Adding to the already strained relationship between Ethiopians and Somalis is a religious divide between the Orthodox Christian belief of the Oromos and the deep Islamic values that shape Somaliland's society.
Zubir Mohammed, a 36-year-old teacher, arrived in Hargeisa in 2007, after he was caught collecting money for the OLF. He says that there are many problems amongst the group:
“We have no clean water, no toilets, no food and no security. The police have started to arrest us because they want us to leave. But we have nowhere else to go.”
Hospital withholds treatment
Several weeks ago, local authorities passed a law banning undocumented foreign workers from being employed in the semi-autonomous republic. Mohammed says he was making good money working at a private school, but since the law has been passed he has stopped going to work.
“When I started three years ago, I was making 230 euros a month. But then there was a conflict between the Ethiopian and Somali owners of the school, and they began to see me only as Ethiopian. They cut my salary to 115 euros, but in fact they haven’t paid me at all.”
A few days ago, Mohammed’s daughter gave birth in the grounds of the Social Welfare Centre. The Hargeisa Group Hospital refused to admit her, despite her being sick with diarrhoea, and was forced to give birth at the centre. Two days ago, Mohammed’s granddaughter died from untreated sickness.
As hostilities from the general public increase, the group has accused the local authorities of refusing to protect them. Ahamed Mohammed says the police outside the Social Welfare Centre gave him a black eye because he tried to leave the compound to find food for his baby daughter. Other asylum seekers claim that such attempts to intimidate them are part of the wider society’s desire to force them out.
“I cannot return to Ethiopia, but every day I feel more unsafe in this country,” says Mohammed. “The only solution is that the world starts paying attention to us and our terrible situation. We urge Human Rights Watch and UNHCR to take action and protect us.”
Virtually all of the asylum seekers have given up hope of a future in Somaliland. As each day passes, more people in the group are planning to escape to a third country, whether through legal or illegal means.
By Mark Anderson, Hargeisa (RNW)