Conflict and violence, slow and sudden-onset disasters and food insecurity have all played a significant part in past and current displacement in Somalia. Most conflict displacement is linked to the activities of the jihadist group al-Shabaab. Disaster displacement is mainly triggered by pervasive drought and riverine and flash flooding.
Conflict and violence triggered 188,000 new displacements in 2019, mainly in the south-east where al-Shabaab, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda, has its stronghold. More than 264,000 IDPs were evicted during the year, making forced evictions one of the main triggers of secondary displacement in the country. Disasters triggered 479,000 new displacements. In common with other countries in East Africa, Somalia was affected by widespread flooding in the second half of 2019 during an unusually wet rainy season influenced by El Niño.
In the first half of 2020, there were 189,000 new displacements associated with conflict and violence and 514,000 as a result of disasters. Find out more in our Mid-year Update.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
New and protracted displacement in Somalia has many interlinked drivers, including recurrent and persistent exposure to internal conflict and climate-related hazards, chronic and acute food and livelihood insecurity, human rights violations and the state’s limited ability and political will to protect and assist IDPs and support them in pursuing durable solutions.
The country is severely fragile and impoverished, with half of the population living below the poverty line. Domestic revenue is insufficient for the government to deliver basic services, and the country is dependent on international assistance. More than a third of the population, or 5.2 million people, were in need of humanitarian assistance as of October 2019, of whom nearly half were acutely food insecure.
Following the collapse of its authoritarian socialist government in January 1991, Somalia descended into cycles of clan-based internal conflict and displacement that has fragmented the country for almost three decades. Its governance structure, economic infrastructure and institutions have crumbled. An internationally backed federal government was installed in 2012 and a compact agreed with the international community.
Fighting between armed groups has continued, however, and between the militant group al-Shabaab and the country’s armed forces backed by troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia. In only the second smooth transfer of power since the country’s first direct elections in 1960, parliament elected a new president in February 2017 as concerns in central government and the international community grew about al-Shabaab violence in southern Somalia.
Large-scale displacement has repeatedly been driven by people’s need for safe shelter, a lack of secure tenure in places of settlement and the search for food, water and pasture for livestock. In addition to its violence, al-Shabaab’s imposition of taxes on households, farms and livestock has also caused displacements.
The cumulative impacts of severe and recurrent drought and other natural hazards on food and livelihood security have led to two periods of famine in some areas of the country, the first from 1991 to 1992 and the second in 2011. As a result of al-Shabaab’s restrictions on trade and freedom of movement, access constraints and limited humanitarian funding and response, the 2011 famine spread across all southern regions in 2011 and around 260,000 people died.
Two consecutive years of severe drought culminated in rapidly deteriorating food security and declining levels of nutrition and health again towards the end of 2016. With more than half of the population facing acute food security, the UN warned of a potential new famine in February 2017. Nearly a million people who depend largely on livestock and agriculture for survival were forced to abandon their homes and normal migration patterns during the year to seek grazing land, water, work or life-saving assistance elsewhere.
Exposed and vulnerable populations are also affected by floods and storms almost every year. Recurrent flooding affects communities living near rivers whose embankments have not been maintained. Somalia’s precarious reliance on rainfall also makes it highly vulnerable to climate change impacts.
Internal displacement is fuelling Somalia’s rapid urbanisation as people who struggle to survive and make a living in the countryside seek opportunities in urban areas. Many, however, establish themselves in informal settlements where they are at high risk of eviction. More than 264,000 IDPs were evicted during the year, making forced evictions one of the main triggers of secondary displacement in the country.
Displacement patterns are determined by recurring shocks associated with conflict, natural hazards and human rights violations. They are also influenced by livelihood mobility needs - around half of the population are nomadic pastoralists - rapid urbanisation and access to information and external assistance.
The majority of IDPs settle in informal and unplanned settlements where conditions are very poor and forced eviction is a common threat. The newly displaced join those whose displacement has become protracted, and many are displaced more than once. IDPs are often marginalised and discriminated against, particularly if they belong to a minority or are separated from the protection of their clans.
Displacement tends to be urban in nature, including rural to urban movements, intra-urban displacement when IDPs are evicted and move to another part of a city and inter-urban, when they move between cities. As many as 80 per cent of IDPs recorded in 2019 were living in urban centres.
Their settlements transform over time into urban informal settlements such as the one in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, where 14 of such settlements are home to economic migrants and IDPs, mainly from parts of the region affected by drought and conflict, as well as returnees and refugees. IDPs in Puntland are also concentrated in the region’s main cities. Many come from southern and central Somalia, though some have been displaced more locally by drought.
Large-scale drought displacement began in late 2016, as food security and access to basic services began to deteriorate in affected areas. The central area of rural eastern Somaliland had become largely deserted by late November of the same year. Displacements have continued since, and 60,000 were recorded in 2019.
In common with other countries in East Africa, Somalia was affected by widespread flooding in the second half of 2019 during an unusually wet rainy season influenced by El Niño. Around 407,000 new displacements were recorded, about a quarter of them in Belet Weyn city in Hiraan state.
Conflict and violence in Somalia triggered 188,000 new displacements in 2019, mainly in the south-east where al-Shabaab, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda, has its stronghold. More than half were recorded in Lower Shabelle region as a result of clashes between the group and the Somali army supported by African Union forces.
Persistent insecurity in rural areas impeded the provision of humanitarian aid, leading many people to flee to overcrowded camps in urban areas, mainly in Mogadishu, in search of refuge and assistance.1 Tens of thousands of IDPs returned home during the year, but many only temporarily to work their land during the sowing and harvest seasons.
The highest poverty levels in Somalia, 71 per cent, are found in IDPs’ settlements. Those displaced under near-famine conditions are in acute need of humanitarian assistance and protection, including access to food, water and sanitation, life-saving health services, shelter and education; mitigation of further exposure to violence and the impacts of natural hazards; and support for livelihood recovery. Women and girls are more likely to experience rape, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, including sex in exchange for food, shelter and non-food items.
Over 45 per cent of IDPs report having been displaced for three or more years, indicating the protracted nature of displacement in Somalia. The achievement of durable solutions will require robust, strategic and collective approaches, whether IDPs choose to return, integrate locally or settle elsewhere. Even in areas of origin where conflict has subsided, IDPs report not wanting to return out of fear of reprisal or because of the lack of social services and livelihood opportunities. For example, 47 per cent of those surveyed in Mogadishu in 2016 said they intended to stay in the city, while 37 per cent said they would prefer to return to their areas of origin.
In response to the new and protracted displacement across the country, the government launched a durable solutions initiative (DSI) with UN support in 2016.￼ In 2019 it established an inter-ministerial durable solutions secretariat, ratified the Kampala Convention and approved a national policy on IDPs and returning refugees.￼ The DSI has been a significant catalyst for these and other developments, leading the government to fully own the country’s response to internal displacement, and setting an example for others to follow.
Sustainable solutions will require security in terms of human-made and natural hazards, climate-resilient livelihoods and secure tenure. Most forced evictions of IDPs take place without warning, and alternative land or housing is rarely provided, pushing those affected toward peripheral districts where establishing a livelihood is even more of a struggle.
Supporting mobility is key to both immediate coping mechanisms and longer-term solutions. Some displaced farmers move between urban and rural locations to combine access to assistance with livelihood activities in their areas of origin, and pastoralists’ livelihoods depend on both internal and cross-border movements to access grazing land.
Several organisations, notably UNHCR, REACH and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), collect data on internal displacement in Somalia. The UNHCR-led Protection and Return Monitoring Network gathers information on both voluntary and forced displacement and returns. There are, however, numerous methodological and conceptual challenges with the dataset and we are engaged with our partners to tackle some of them. IOM began monitoring in Somalia in 2017 and is assessing displaced populations in around half of the country. REACH focuses on assessments of IDPs in urban centres.