MSF Denied Access to Somali Region of Ethiopia, Despite Worsening Humanitarian Crisis

Nairobi, September 4, 2007 – Violence and displacement are threatening the lives of the civilian population in Ethiopia's conflict-affected Somali region, the medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today. Despite urgent humanitarian needs, however, two MSF sections have been denied access to the region. MSF is calling on the Ethiopian authorities to immediately allow its teams to provide assistance to people in the region who are facing an increasingly desperate situation.

MSF has a signed agreement with the Government of Ethiopia to work in the Somali region –often referred to as the "Ogaden region" – and had conducted several assessments of the humanitarian needs in the area when it was forced to evacuate its teams for security reasons in late July. Despite repeated appeals over the past weeks to gain permission to return, the Government of Ethiopia has denied both MSF Belgium and MSF Holland access.

"There is a humanitarian crisis in the Somali-region of Ethiopia," said William Robertson, head of mission for the Dutch section of MSF in Ethiopia. "Our teams have treated people who have been forced to flee their homes and are now struggling to survive with little or no assistance. People are living in fear because they find themselves targeted by and caught between armed groups. We are urgently calling for immediate access to the region in order to help civilians in need."

While conducting mobile health clinics and measles vaccination campaigns in the Wardher area of the region until fighting forced the MSF team to leave on July 24, MSF international staff saw emptied and burned villages, and assisted numerous people who reported being forcibly displaced from their homes. Despite limited operations, MSF treated several victims of beatings and gunshot wounds, underlining the need for urgent medical care in the area.

In July, MSF also conducted assessments of the humanitarian needs in the region in the areas of Denan, Garbo, Degahmadow, Sagag, and Fiq. During these assessments, the MSF team saw a number of villages wholly or partially abandoned and were told of food shortages by villagers and displaced people.

"Last week, we asked the authorities to grant us access at least for 24 to 48 hours so we could provide medications and material to Fiq health centre. We know that the health centre and the wider district are suffering from a serious shortage of drugs as the last supplies arrived six months ago", said Loris De Filippi, operational coordinator for MSF Belgium in Ethiopia. "But once again, the authorities refused to let our team move from the capital city Jijiga to Fiq by road or even by plane".

As insecurity has left health structures empty of staff and medicines, there is a risk that the health situation will deteriorate further. In the month since MSF carried out its assessments, no independent humanitarian non-governmental organizations have been able to provide assistance to these areas. The region is known to be extremely precarious and subject to nutritional emergencies and famines causing extremely high mortality, as witnessed by MSF in the years 1992 and 2000. Humanitarian organizations must be allowed immediate access to the region, otherwise the medical and nutritional consequences risk becoming catastrophic.

MSF has worked in Ethiopia continually since 1984, carrying out a variety of medical and nutritional interventions throughout the country, including in the Somali region.