Fragile Relief Efforts in Somalia Threatened by Aid Ban

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December 1, 2011

A ban on 16 aid agencies from operating in southern Somalia by al-Shabaab must be lifted, said the head UN official for the country on Nov. 30, 2011. In an interview with Reuters, UN humanitarian coordinator Mark Bowden also warned that intensified fighting in Somalia could have dire consequences for civilians trapped in territory controlled by the terrorist group. In July, the UN declared a famine in central and southern Somalia with at least 2 million people at risk of starvation. 

Just days before the ban on aid groups operating in southern Somalia went into effect, Bowden had described the famine relief effort as fragile. “Any improvements can only be sustained if the current level of humanitarian assistance continues. If humanitarian activities are interrupted or reduced in southern Somalia, many areas will fall back into famine,” Bowden said. 

Last year, al-Shabaab had banned food aid to the nearly two million people trapped in the areas they controlled after prohibiting outside aid groups. The ban was lifted in August when the food crisis hit critical levels. The UN estimates tens of thousands of people still died, and Bowden says the precise number is likely never to be known. "The important thing for us is to maintain access. We have made considerable gains in terms of addressing the food crisis in the south of Somalia,” Bowden said.
In their statement announcing the ban, al-Shabaab accused the agencies of “lacking complete political detachment and neutrality... thereby intensifying the instability and insecurity gripping the nation.”
Valerie Amos, the UN’s humanitarian affairs coordinator for the country, denied these claims. “Humanitarian organizations working in Somalia remain strictly neutral, and their only task is to save lives,” she said.
Even before the ban, the widespread conflict plaguing the country combined with the famine had left the country in a crisis state. The UN estimates that more fighting meant that almost a quarter of the people who received food assistance last month are unlikely to receive them next month. "There is concern that if Somalia goes into a long, protracted period of conflict for whatever reason for the next months and fighting is widespread, then the humanitarian consequences will be very serious,” Bowden said.
Only a handful of groups are left to operate in al Shabaab-held areas, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Among the agencies that are banned include six UN organizations, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Danish Refugee Council, Concern, Norwegian Church Aid and the Italian Cooperazione Internazionale. Other groups forced to shut down were the Swedish African Welfare Alliance, the German Technical Cooperation, Action Contre la Faim, Solidarity and Saacid.