HARGEISA, 23 October 2009 (IRIN) - Immigration officials in the self-declared republic of Somaliland have expressed concern over the increase in the number of illegal Ethiopian migrants entering the region, with claims that up to 90 people are arriving daily, against 50 in 2008.
An immigration official, who requested anonymity, said most of those arriving in Somaliland were asylum-seekers from the Oromiya region of Ethiopia. Others transit through Somaliland en route to the Arabian Peninsula.
The exact number of Ethiopian refugees in Somaliland is unclear as the region's authorities and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, have different figures.
Mohamed Ismail, the director of social affairs in the Ministry of Interior - charged with overseeing refugee affairs and asylum-seekers – said: "We consider 4,000 individuals as Ethiopian refugees but all the other people who live in Somaliland are not refugees; [they have] come to Somaliland for a better life."
According to UNHCR Somalia, Somaliland has 1,600 Ethiopian refugees and more than 14,000 asylum-seekers.
"UNHCR has the responsibility of engaging in strong information campaigns targeting Ethiopians on their right to seek asylum if they are fleeing persecution in their country and of the rights they have as refugees," Roberta Russo, a spokeswoman for the agency, told IRIN on 22 October.
However, a source in the Ministry of Interior said the last estimate by the ministry and UNHCR in 2006 was that at least 8,000 Ethiopian refugees were in Somaliland.
Saleban Ismail Bulale, chairman of the Horn of Africa Human Rights Organization, based in Hargeisa, said: "UNHCR has granted refugee status to only 1,500, but it is estimated that there are thousands of Ethiopians in Somaliland."
Living on the streets
Asha Abdi, an Ethiopian mother of six living on the streets of Hargeisa, told IRIN: "My children and I left our home in Babuli town in Ethiopia's Oromiya Region several months ago; we came because we had suffered lack of food for a long time."
Hers is one of several Ethiopian families trying to survive on Hargeisa's streets. "We live in the shade of local houses and beg for food to survive," Asha said.
An Ethiopian official, who requested anonymity, told IRIN it seemed the UNHCR office in Hargeisa was encouraging asylum-seekers to enter Somaliland.
"Ethiopians emigrate to Somaliland in search of a better life; for example, they want to be relocated to a foreign country. You see them coming here and then going back to their homes after registering with the UNHCR office in Hargeisa as asylum-seekers," the official said. "When their time comes for their relocation, they come back to Hargeisa."
However, Russo said UNHCR did everything possible to inform the refugees of their rights and to ensure the protection mechanisms put in place were not abused.
In very few cases, she said, UNHCR offered the option of resettlement to a third country if the refugees faced insecurity in the country of asylum or if it was impossible for them to integrate. Russo added that this opportunity was offered to the most needy cases.