HARGEISA, 22 June 2010 (IRIN) - The announcement by the government of Somalia's self-declared republic of Somaliland that there were no refugees in the region – only economic migrants from neighbouring countries – has angered hundreds of refugees in the country.
"We are political refugees, not economic migrants; we were politically persecuted in our homes," a representative of Ethiopian refugees said at a ceremony marking World Refugee Day on 20 June in Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland.
The representative said Somaliland's directive went against its humanitarian responsibilities to refugees.
"This day [20 June] reminds millions of refugees across the world of their violated human rights, the violence they have suffered and the poor living conditions they endure," the representative said.
The theme of this year's World Refugee Day was, "They took my home but they cannot take my future".
"This theme aims to highlight the plight of refugees worldwide, as well as their courage and resilience," Abdoulaye Barry, head of the Hargeisa office of the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said.
He told the audience that the issue was not only to alleviate the plight of refugees, but rather, "as human beings, we have a moral obligation and responsibility to lend a helping hand to people who must flee persecution".
Somaliland's Justice Minister, Adan Ahmed Ilmi, said many Somalilanders had been refugees in the past, "so we know what it means to be a refugee".
He, however, said the country would continue to welcome and protect refugees.
According to UNHCR, Somaliland has at least 1,600 recognised refugees, about 20,000 asylum-seekers and 67,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Of the refugees, most are Oromos and Amharas from neighbouring Ethiopia, the remainder are Eritreans and several individuals come from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.
Barry told IRIN that repatriation was not feasible at present for most of the refugees and that the agency was prioritizing resettlement and reintegration for most of the refugees in the country.
An Ethiopian refugee, who requested anonymity, expressed his displeasure at Somaliland's decision, saying most refugees were afraid to speak up because they feared being kicked out of the country.
"We have no proper protection; one can be sent back anytime; we have no freedom, we are even afraid to say anything because we may not leave this compound before action is taken against us," he said.
He said the UN was urging the refugees to integrate into the local community, but "the Somalilanders don't want us; the best way we could do this is by inter-marrying but how can we do this if they won't even interact with us?"