NAIROBI (AlertNet) – For the first time, Somalis are fleeing their homes because of fear of abuse at military checkpoints, the United Nations says.
This is a new trend in displacement, which is primarily caused due to insecurity in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation, it added.
There has been an increase in checkpoints where African Union forces and their allies have secured territory from al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab insurgents.
“Many people fear being caught up and mistaken as an infiltrator,” said Bruno Geddo, head of the U.N. refugee agency in Somalia.
He did not give further details and it was not clear what sort of abuse people feared.
The checkpoints are manned by AU forces, known as AMISOM, and allied Somali government soldiers.
Although al Shabaab retreated from the Somali capital Mogadishu last August under pressure from the AU forces, it continues to launch suicide bombings and other deadly attacks in the city.
“Paradoxically, but very really in the case of Somalia, the bigger the territory you take, the more tenuous the frontline control you are able to exercise,” said Geddo.
“The militants are lurking in the countryside and this has become now an asymmetrical warfare. You have an invisible enemy coming in on hit and run tactics.”
The United Nations has an elaborate system for tracking and analysing population movements in Somalia.
This year, insecurity and the need for humanitarian assistance are the two most common reasons given by people for fleeing.
People are also moving out of fear of forced recruitment by al Shabaab fighters, which is “rampant” according to Geddo, and increased taxation by the insurgents.
“Al Shabaab is on their back foot so there is an increased effort at military recruitment,” he said.
Many people flee into Mogadishu, which hosts over 200,000 displaced people in camps scattered across the city.
Humanitarian access to Mogadishu has improved since al Shabaab left, with the United Nations working in 12 out of 16 districts. Other cities, such as Baidoa and Afmadow, are also under the control of forces that permit humanitarian aid, unlike al Shabaab.
But the United Nations is still unable to reach many internally displaced people (IDPs) in rural areas.
“The fact that big cities have been cleared of the militants doesn’t mean that you have humanitarian access in the countryside where most IDPs are,” said Geddo.
“We do have access to existing IDP settlements in the perimeter of the cities and that is where gradually assistance is picking up. But we still don’t have safe access in the countryside where a lot of people in need may still be found.”
The United Nations has not yet been given the green light to enter Afgoye outside Mogadishu, which was until recently tagged the world’s largest displaced settlement.