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(Nairobi) – Members of state security forces and armed groups have raped, beaten, and otherwise abused displaced Somalis who have arrived in Somalia’s capital fleeing famine and armed conflict since 2011, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The new Somali government should urgently improve the protection and security of Mogadishu’s internally displaced population.

The 80-page report, “Hostages of the Gatekeepers: Abuses against Internally Displaced in Mogadishu, Somalia,”details serious violations, including physical attacks, restrictions on movement and access to food and shelter, and clan-based discrimination against the displaced in Mogadishu from the height of the famine in mid-2011 through 2012. Interviews with 70 displaced people documented the ways in which government forces, affiliated militia, and private parties, notably camp managers known as “gatekeepers,” prey upon the vulnerable community.

“Instead of finding a safe haven from fighting and famine, many displaced Somalis who came to Mogadishu have found hostility and abuse,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director. “The new Somali government should quickly remedy the failures of the previous government, improve protection of displaced people, and hold to account members of the armed forces and others responsible for abuses.”

Somalia is slowly emerging from two decades of conflict. In 2011 a combination of fighting involving Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government and African Union forces (AMISOM) against the armed Islamist group al-Shabaab, unrelenting drought, and obstruction of civilian access to humanitarian assistance caused a devastating famine. Tens of thousands of people fled south-central Somalia for Mogadishu where many are living in camps.

Rape and sexual abuse of displaced women and girls, including by government soldiers and militia members, has been an enormous problem in the unprotected environment of the camps, Human Rights Watch found. Many victims of sexual violence don’t report their experiences to the authorities because they fear reprisals from their attackers, are wary of the social stigma, and have little confidence in the justice system. The father of a young woman who was allegedly raped by four soldiers told Human Rights Watch, “We didn’t try to go to justice, because the commander was harassing us at the time my daughter was raped. So how I can trust anyone here? We must keep silent.”

Gatekeepers and militias controlling the camps have also diverted and stolen food aid intended for famine-stricken camp residents. A 30-year-old camp resident described her family’s dire situation: “There is nothing worse than the situation we are in. Now all we want is to get a car and return to our villages, because if I can die here because of lack of food, I might as well die in my village, because death is death.”

Gatekeepers sometimes have kept camp residents from leaving to attract greater humanitarian assistance, which the gatekeepers would then siphon off for their own benefit. One woman told Human Rights Watch: “If we try to move from the camp, she [the gatekeeper] takes the tents from us. We don’t have a plastic sheet, we don’t have other shelter, and we don’t have a place to sleep. So until we get rescued we must stay there as hostages.”

The communities from the regions most affected by the famine, the Rahanweyn and Bantu, have been particularly vulnerable to abuses. Gatekeepers and members of armed groups, including government-affiliated militias, treat them as second-class citizens, beat and insult them, and otherwise treat them repressively.

The Transitional Federal Government was primarily responsible for the failure to protect the displaced and to hold accountable those responsible for abuses, but donor governments involved in Somalia have not made these issues a priority. International donors, including humanitarian agencies, should be ensuring greater accountability of their assistance.

“The new government should turn the page on the transitional government’s failures and provide accountable protection to the displaced, who are among Somalia’s most vulnerable citizens,” Lefkow said. “Donors should stress that holding the security forces accountable for abuses against displaced people is key for improving security and the rule of law in Mogadishu.”

The new Somali government, which replaced the Transitional Federal Government in August 2012 following a United Nations-sponsored election process, announced plans to relocate the capital’s tens of thousands of displaced people in 2013. The government should ensure, in accordance with international law, that relocations are voluntary, that they are conducted safely and with dignity, and that competent police forces can provide security at the relocation sites.

Humanitarian organizations estimate that between 180,000 and 370,000 displaced people are in Mogadishu but precise data is not available because the displaced people were never officially registered. The lack of information about the displaced community heightens the need for the government, the UN, and aid agencies to carry out a profiling exercise to determine people’s needs. The effort should identify the most vulnerable people – such as female-headed households, unaccompanied children, the elderly, and the disabled – before any plans for relocation and resettlement are carried out.

The government’s response to the key issues affecting the displaced has so far been mixed. While high-level government officials, including President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, have made commendable public commitments to tackle abuse, including rape by government forces, these commitments have yet to be translated into concrete action. The criminal prosecution in recent weeks of a displaced woman – who alleged that she was raped by government soldiers – and of a journalist who interviewed her sent a deeply troubling message.

The government’s stated aim of completing relocation of displaced people by August 20, the one year anniversary of the end of the transitional government, despite the tremendous challenges of providing assistance and protection at the new resettlement sites, will put the displaced at greater risk of abuse and neglect.

“The government faces daunting challenges, though it appears committed to tackling the dire situation of the displaced in Mogadishu,” Lefkow said. “But if the rights, needs, and wishes of the displaced themselves are not addressed, then they are likely to face even more suffering and abuse.”

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