'We All Live in Fear': How Climate Change Is Devastating to Refugees
In Somaliland, a crippling drought has driven many women and children from their rural villages and into dangerous and overcrowded refugee camps.
Nima Berashe, a resident of Maxamad Mooge camp in Somaliland. All photos by Alice Rowsome
"I had 120 animals," Amina Abdul Hussein, a mother of three tells me as we sit inside her ragged cloth tent in Maxamad Mooge camp, temporarily shielded from the midday glare of the sun. "But the drought killed all of them."
Dozens of unofficial camps like this are scattered across the outskirts of Hargeisa, the capital of the self-declared independent state of Somaliland in East Africa. The UNHCR reports that nearly 40,000 people have already been forced out of their native rural villages by drought in the last three months. Trigged by El Niño, the drought has been worsened by climate change, according to a new study published by the American Meteorological Society.
Livestock production is the backbone of Somaliland's economy and represents an important component of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), with around 65 percent of the population practicing some form of pastoralism. With no livestock and insufficient support from the international community and the government of Somaliland, tens of thousands have been forced to abandon their agricultural way of life and come to the city.
However, women who arrive in Hargeisa have few employment opportunities in comparison to their male counterparts, and quickly find themselves living in adverse conditions on the outskirts of town. From pregnancy complications to sexual assault and the lack of sanitary facilities, it is clear that it is women who are bearing the brunt of the drought and its consequences.
"I was pregnant before coming here but I had no water, so I lost my baby, " Hussein tells me.
A recent study confirms her suspicions: It found that climate change, specifically in Africa, could result in low birth weights which does put babies at risk of experiencing health complications—and can lead to pre-term or stillborn babies in some cases.
"Birth weight outcomes are impacted by changes in the number of hot days and precipitation amounts," explains Kathryn Grace, the lead author of the study. "Women who are pregnant are more sensitive to heat stress, dehydration, e.t.c.," especially in developing countries where resources are limited, she warns.
Hussein was left in a pool of blood after she miscarried. When her husband discovered the miscarriage, he abandoned the family and came to the city. With no access to water or food, she decided move to Hargeisa where she hoped her extended family would be able to support her. "[But] the situation was very different to what we had expected, they [did] not welcome us," Hussein says, "so I came to this camp with my three children."
However, she adds, no humanitarian agencies operate in this camp. In fact, women are expected to pay rent to their so-called landlords. "This land is privately owned, so we have to pay. When we don't pay, they [the landlords] grab the land back from us and we are forced to move again," says Hussein. "See the stones we are standing on? We pick them up and go sell them at the market. We make about 60,000 SOS [approximately $8] per ton."
Having suffered complications following her miscarriage, Hussein complains that carrying the stones put her in a lot of pain. She also says that some landlords have burnt the shelters of the women who don't pay.
"There is no security or even lighting in this camp. Our shelters are made of cloth, with no locks or anything. We all live in fear here," Hussein says. "Anyone can come burn or come into our shelters at night, so we are always scared. I end up sleeping very little."
A couple of tents besides Hussein, Hodan Ahmedan, 23, recounts an incident two days prior in which she was sexually assaulted by a group of men on her way to relieve herself at night. "The men left me when some of the older women came to help me," she explains, but adds that such attacks remain increasingly frequent.
Many more are arriving every day due to the drought.
Due to the hard consistency of the ground, the women are unable to dig holes that they would normally use as lavatories. As a consequence, they are forced at night to walk to the outskirts of the camp to find a spot they can use for their needs. "It is sore for me to go only at night," Hussein explains, "men can go whenever they like, but we must wait until it gets dark for privacy reason [sic]."
With 225 households, most residents in the camp are women and children. "Many more are arriving every day due to the drought, " Nima Berashe, 45, tells me. She has lived in the camp a little longer than most other residents, and is keeping a close count of everyone. Berashe stresses that the increase in camp residents is stretching the limited resources they have.
Unfortunately, the number of refugees is not only expected to increase in Somaliland but across the region. The Famine Early-Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) predicts that the highly anticipated April rains are unlikely to come—a warning that a famine is to be expected. More will be displaced in Somaliland as well as the East African region because of the drought, unless the international community reacts this month.
The unprecedented severity of the drought—the latest in a series of devastating natural disasters—is leading specialists to put the spotlight on man-made climate change.
"In the Horn of Africa, like in the Sahel region, an anticipated and expected coping strategy to the drought is to move within borders and at times across borders," says Rob Bailey, the author of Managing Famine Risk: Linking Early Warning to Early Action and the research director for energy, environment and resources at Chatham House. "And it can be guaranteed that climate change will increase the likelihood of human migration and movement compared to a future without climate change."
Climate change is a "threat multiplier," he adds. In cases of conflict, civil uprisings, or yearly droughts, climate change will worsen already devastating situations, often putting the most vulnerable like Hussein, Ahmedan, and Berashe at higher risk of danger.
The science of how climate change multiplies the threats of extreme crises and weather patterns is becoming more robust, Bailey underlines. "Computers are getting better, the quality of scientists is improving, which means it will be possible for climate scientists to say whether one event was caused by man-made climate change," Bailey says. "It is going to become easier to point out that climate change played a role."
Currently, however, "there is no protocol to react to people fleeing their land as a result of the effects of climate change, as there is no international definition of what constitutes a 'climate refugee,'" says Bennett Collins, the policy director of the Third Generation Project, a Scottish think tank that promotes research and advocacy on collective human rights. And while there are a growing number of initiatives, such as the Platform on Disaster Displacement, that look for ways to account for people fleeing across borders due to climate change, there remains little focus on those who are internally displaced.
As a result, climate refugees' lack of recognition—added to the fact that Somaliland is not a recognized state—is leaving women like Hussein and Ahmedan largely unaccounted for.
In addition, the issues that women face in Maxamad Mooge camp are not, unfortunately, a rare exception. An increasing amount of evidence recognizes that women refugees face heightened risks when migrating within their own country or across continents. For instance, an Amnesty International report, based on the testimony of female refugees travelling across the Balkans and Europe, confirmed that "women and girl refugees face violence, assault, exploitation and sexual harassment at every stage of their journey, including on European soil."
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a statement, "[In] discussions within public, policy, and academia regarding environmental migration are often gender-neutral, few studies make the link between migration, environment and gender... Despite the fact that "environmental migration is a gendered process."
As Bersahe puts it: "It is easier for men to find jobs, so they come to the city and start a new life. Most of them leave us. Some do stay.
"I know you can't see them and you are going to ask me where they are," she adds, shaking her head. "Sleeping. They are so lazy! We do all the work."
All photos by Alice Rowsome.