NEW YORK // A UN aid chief has urged the UAE and other Gulf nations to tackle a "deepening humanitarian crisis" in Somalia, while warning of ever-greater numbers of refugees crossing to the Arabian Peninsula. Mark Bowden, the UN humanitarian and resident co-ordinator for Somalia, called on the six oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council members to contribute to an emergency US$919 million (Dh3.4bn) appeal to finance relief efforts.
He said 3.2m Somalis, or 40 per cent of the population, required assistance. In some parts of the country, one in six children under five suffers from acute malnutrition. "We would like to see more support from the Gulf countries and will be presenting them with an appeal that we hope they can contribute to," Mr Bowden told The National. Growing numbers of Somalis, displaced by drought and fighting, are joining the exodus of more than 40,000 African migrants who have crossed the Gulf of Aden by boat already this year.
Landing in Yemen, they fill refugee camps or attempt border-crossings into other Gulf countries, Mr Bowden said, drawn by the lure of "better economic opportunities" in boom towns such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha. But sea crossings are notoriously dangerous, with smugglers often forcing their refugee customers into the treacherous waters at gunpoint after being spotted by coastguard patrols. Officials say 380 people have already died this year and some 360 more have gone missing. Last year, 29,500 people made the voyage to Yemen and the combined number of dead and missing reached 1,400, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Ron Redmond, a UNHCR spokesman, said at least 20 people drowned off Yemen's coast on Monday after smugglers forced passengers overboard near a village 220km east of Aden. Rescuers recovered 20 bodies, while 93 passengers managed to scramble to shore. The boat was reportedly carrying around 115 passengers, Mr Redmond said. Two people were reported missing. Mr Bowden said the refugees were fleeing from a three-year drought, an economic crisis and fighting in a country that has operated without central authority since the 1991 overthrow of the dictator president, Mohamed Siad Barre.
Somalia's UN-supported transitional government and Ethiopian allies continue to face an Islamist insurgency of mortar attacks, roadside bombings and assassinations, with a struggling population caught in the crossfire. "This year is a make or break for Somalia for combating the threat of a totally destitute population," warned Mr Bowden. "What we are looking at today is a situation in which nearly half the population is in crisis or in need of assistance. There is no doubt it has reached an undeniable level of immensity,"
Per Engebak, the regional director for Unicef, the UN Children's Fund, called on donor countries in the Gulf and beyond to help avert what he said would be the world's second-worst humanitarian crisis after Darfur. "Somalis should not be doubly punished for the conflict within their country. In spite of the security situation, we must provide assistance," said Mr Engebak. "While it is difficult, it is not impossible to respond effectively to the humanitarian situation."
The National contacted the GCC office at UN headquarters about Gulf contributions to Somalia, but officials were not able to comment. firstname.lastname@example.org