Medical charity MSF pulls out of Somalia

International medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières is pulling out of Somalia after 22 years because of attacks on its staff.

Women and children queue up to get medicine at an MSFrun medical clinic in the lower Shabelle region of Somalia. Picture: Getty

In a scathing indictment of Somalia’s leaders, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) yesterday said the decision was the result of “extreme attacks on its staff in an environment where armed groups and civilian leaders increasingly support, tolerate, or condone the killing, assaulting and abducting of humanitarian aid workers”.

MSF (Doctors Without Borders) has seen 16 staff killed in Somalia since 1991, including two in 2011 in the capital Mogadishu. It yesterday pointed to those two deaths and “the
subsequent early release of the convicted killer” in contributing to its decision.

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In December 2011, a Somali employee of MSF who had learned his contract would not be renewed shot dead a Belgian and an Indonesian worker. Though he was sentenced to
30 years, he was released from prison after only three months.

MSF said the pull-out would cut off hundreds of thousands of civilians from humanitarian aid.

“In choosing to kill, attack and abduct humanitarian aid workers, these armed groups – and the civilian authorities who tolerate their actions – have sealed the fate of countless lives,” said Dr Unni Karunakara, MSF’s
international president.

“We are ending our programmes in Somalia because the situation in the country has created an untenable imbalance between the risks and compromises our staff must make, and our ability to provide assistance to the Somali people.”

The pull-out comes a month after the release of two Spanish MSF employees, who were abducted in a Kenyan refugee camp near the border and held in Somalia for almost two years.

This nation in the Horn of Africa has been seen as making strides in security. Somalia fell into anarchy in 1991 and for much of the past decade Mogadishu was ruled by warlords and al-Qaeda-aligned militants. Those militants from al-Shabaab were forced out in 2011, and a new government was voted in.

The security gains have brought new measures of freedom to the capital, but violence persists. Some two dozen local journalists have been killed since the start of 2012.

Humanitarian needs in Somalia created unparalleled levels of risk for MSF, the aid group said, forcing it to “take the exceptional measure of utilising armed guards, which it does not do in any other country, and to tolerate extreme limits on its ability to independently assess and respond to the needs of the population”.

MSF will close programmes in Mogadishu and ten other locations. The group said it provided more than 624,000 medical consultations and admitted 41,000 patients to hospitals and cared for more than 30,000 malnourished children last year alone.

Philippe Lazzarini, the top UN humanitarian official for Somalia, called MSF’s role in Somalia “extremely important” and said the UN would look at which of its aid activities could be taken over by other groups.

“It’s still a high-risk environment and challenges are huge,” he said. “Still, it’s one of those rare times when the international community should beef up its support to the government.”