MSF quits Somalia operations

Published on Thursday 10th July 2008

Nairobi (Kenya): Médecins Sans Frontières Switzerland (MSF-Swiss) has withdrawn from Fiiq, Somali region, saying repeated administrative hurdles and intimidation had prevented it from providing medical care to vulnerable populations.

"Over the six months of our intervention, our medical teams could only work for 10 weeks in Fiiq town and five on the periphery of the town where the most important needs are," Hugues Robert, who heads the Ethiopia programme in Geneva, said in a statement. "It significantly reduces the medical impact of our action."

A senior Ethiopian official, however, denied the claims.

"They did not face any problem," the official, who requested anonymity, told IRIN in Addis Ababa. "They might have their own double agenda. Otherwise there was no intimidation or administrative hurdles from our side.

"If there was intimidation, they would not have stayed for the last six months."

MSF-Swiss said despite an agreement signed with Ethiopia's federal authorities, its staff had not received the necessary work permits and could only be on-site for short periods.

Despite severe malnutrition rates in some villages, the charity added, only 84 children suffering from malnutrition had been helped. "In addition, over the past six months, MSF mobile teams have only been able to give medical consultations to 677 patients in the most affected rural area around Fiiq, while many more patients would have been expected.

"The authorities' attitude towards humanitarian organisations has translated into recurrent arrests of MSF Switzerland staff without charge or explanation," it added. "Despite continuous attempts to improve the working relations with the authorities, our organisation can only regret the absence of any room to bring independent and impartial assistance."

The government official said disagreements had arisen with the charity. "The region has a right to monitor whether they conduct their operations according to the agreement they reached [but] they do not want our close monitoring," he said.

Among other activities, the official added, the charity had refused to give information about its patients, had failed to seek clearance to move operations from one area to another and at one time, landed a plane in Fiiq without notifying anyone.

"We did not arrest any MSF expatriate staff," he told IRIN. "Five national staff of MSF are in detention. We do not know the reasons behind their arrest but if a citizen is found to be a criminal, a government has a right to arrest [them]."

According to the official, MSF Greece, Belgium and Holland were still operating in the region.

Clashes between government troops and the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front, related disruptions to trade, transport and social services along with limited access for aid agencies have compounded the humanitarian situation in the area.