No Going Back: The New Urban Face of Internal Displacement in Somalia

This research is part of a series of reports on internal displacement. The project considers durable solutions to displacement, looking specifically at climate-related internal displacement and institutional frameworks to build norms and policies that improve IDP response.

This report was made possible by the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

“The river was dry and there was no rain. We did not harvest any crop in the last four years, and we lost everything we had. There was no food, no water. Then we fled from our village after the drought hit… I have been here for a month… I was walking for three days with my children because two of my children died of hunger while I was at home. That is why I ran away from my beloved village… When I came here, I got some food that we ate in our first days in the camp from a local NGO, but my husband goes to the town to work in construction. Sometimes he gets $4, and sometimes he gets nothing.”

A 25-year-old mother of five who fled from drought in the Lower Shabelle region in Somalia.

Executive Summary

Somalia’s repeated waves of displacement over the past several decades have produced one of the highest rates of urbanization in Africa. Somalia is now changing drastically as its rural population flees to urban centers. The future trajectory of humanitarian, development, and peace and security programming must pivot to reflect this new reality. Urbanization is now the dominant form of internal displacement in Somalia.

Somalia continues to be one of the most complex and protracted humanitarian crises in the world. There are few countries that have seen such levels of displacement for so many years, largely linked to repeating cycles of violence, food insecurity, and climate-induced crises. There are an estimated 4 million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Somalia, a diverse group of the population who have fled conflict, violence, and poverty – many of whom have been displaced multiple times. They are now facing an unprecedented sixth consecutive below-average rainfall season, which has led to the worst drought in 40 years. So far, the ongoing drought has displaced more than 1.3 million people – a five-fold increase in displacement since early 2022 – and left nearly 40 percent of the population in need of urgent food assistance. Many have already died due to hunger and disease.

The humanitarian and development community in Somalia have fought the drivers of hunger, conflict, and climate-related crises for years in an extremely challenging environment – regularly scaling up efforts in response to the ongoing and intersecting crises. Relief actors have also built responses around Somali refugees returning from neighboring countries and even hosting some refugees from the region – all amidst serious security constraints, including targeting and sometimes only being able to access an area on an hour-by-hour basis. Many aid actors are largely cut off from large portions of the population due to security constraints, even in the capital city. And while local NGOs with national staff tend to acquire better access, all aid groups face risks and access challenges, leaving the population in need with ad hoc assistance at best. Years of corruption have also brewed mistrust between some actors, and security conditions continue to hamper aid efforts across the country.

Despite decades of efforts to respond and build resilience, the cycle of displacement continues, and durable solutions remain elusive. However, a close look shows not only a cycle of repetition in crisis and response, but a more complex story of a country that is rapidly urbanizing as a result of these cycles. Many of Somalia’s displaced people – who are mostly women and children – have even been displaced multiple times over the course of several years. They are voting with their feet by abandoning untenable lives in rural areas.  

Recognizing the urban dimensions of internal displacement in Somalia could mean a very different type of response than the approach over the past several decades. Indeed, Somalia has one of the highest urbanization levels in Africa: by 2026, it is estimated that its urban population will overtake its rural population – a reality that will drastically shape the future of the country. Due to violence and the impacts of climate change, including the loss of livelihoods, the vast majority of internally displaced people have moved from rural, pastoralist communities to urban centers like Mogadishu and Baidoa.

However, Somalia’s decades of conflict and weak governance mean that urban areas lack adequate services to support the IDPs upon arrival, and very few social safety nets exist. Unlike other countries with large IDP populations clustered in just a handful of settlements across the country, Somalia has more than 2,400 IDP sites, some 85 percent of which are informal settlements on private land in urban areas. This comes with additional risks for internally displaced people. Indeed, due to the poorly developed and implemented land tenure system, IDPs living on private land are subject to forced evictions with limited judicial recourse.

In spite of these challenges, there has been some progress for Somalia’s internally displaced people in recent years. Somalia has passed various laws and policies to fill the gaps in addressing the IDP crisis. In 2018, it adopted the Registration and Identification Policy, and on March 11, 2023, Somali’s Upper House passed the National Identification and Registration Authority Bill. The new law will enable every Somali citizen to legally register their identity and gain access to government and private services. In 2019, the National Policy on Refugees and Internally Displaced Person policy passed. It also ratified the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance for IDPs in Africa (the Kampala Convention) in 2019, and in 2021, it adopted the National Civil Registration and Vital Statistics Policy. Somalia also developed and adopted the National Durable Solutions Strategy (NDSS) 2020 – 2024.

While these laws represent progress on paper and are a positive foundation for better policy approaches, they have had little impact on the millions of internally displaced people who remain in dire conditions. To break the cycle of crises and displacement, much more needs to be done. The government must find ways to implement important laws that could fill the gaps in IDP protection, and the aid sector must do more to support that implementation. Meanwhile, humanitarian and development actors must shift their own approaches to reflect the lessons of responding to a highly diverse and urbanizing IDP community.

This report explores the drivers behind displacement in Somalia as well as the changing nature of that displacement. It highlights how climate-related events have become an increasing cause of displacement in recent years, and how urbanization has changed the landscape of displacement and of the country as a whole.

Limaan camp in Mogadishu on December 7, 2022, where internally displaced Somalis who fled severe drought conditions live. (Photo by HASSAN ALI ELMI/AFP via Getty Images)


To the federal government of Somalia:

  • Strengthen the National Durable Solutions Secretariat so it can convene and coordinate between various ministries and agencies, the Federal Government, and the Federal Member States on durable solutions to displacement. 
  • Work with the international community to adequately fund and staff the existing line ministries and agencies spearheading IDP durable solutions in coordination with donors.
  • Conduct a census – as recently announced for 2024 – and begin a program to ensure that all Somalis have national identification. Documentation is critical for IDPs and the wider population to access their rights and obtain assistance, and for authorities and organizations to assess needs and craft responses accurately.
  • Work with international actors like the World Bank to produce data on displacement that can fast-track investment and programming that targets those in need and builds resilience, and implements stronger policy solutions based on earlier data and analysis collected.
  • Implement the existing laws, including the Refugee, Returnee and IDP Policy, the IDP Policy Framework, and eviction guidelines, which provide important protections, resources, and accountability for IDPs.

To the international community, including the UN, INGOs, and donors:

  • Channel aid through local NGOs with greater access and knowledge. Given the long, complex history of mistrust between aid actors and those receiving aid, as well as cases of corruption and misuse of funds, intensive time and energy will need to take place to build these partnerships. This could include increasing localized funding, setting up local NGO working groups, and conducting constructive collaboration with local NGOs.
  • Adopt a sustainably funded and coordinated area-based approach (ABA) to Somalia’s urban IDP populations, and an urban-centric approach to resilience. This would more closely involve the Somali government, aid, and development agencies crafting a more holistic response that recognizes the reality at hand: that most IDPs have moved to urban areas and are unlikely to return home anytime soon, if ever.
  • Enhance women’s leadership roles in humanitarian aid and programming because women and children make up the majority of the displaced, and aid is more likely to reach those in need when women are a part of the response.
  • Calibrate differentiated assistance and protection strategies to the different needs of the population. Many long-standing IDPs more closely resemble urban poor and have a different set of needs than new arrivals. Minorities within the IDP populations, many of whom are completely cut off from the aid community, have different needs as well.
  • Ensure protected funding for medium- and longer-term resiliency approaches and investments alongside ongoing emergency humanitarian responses and expand proven pilot programs, including for sustainable farming and livelihoods support.

Research Overview

In recent years, Refugees International has produced multiple reports on internal displacement in Somalia as well as Somali refugees in host countries. In March 2023, Refugees International visited Mogadishu, Somalia, and Nairobi, Kenya, to meet with various stakeholders, including UN agencies, local and international NGOs, civil society, IDPs, and government actors, regarding internal displacement in Somalia. In addition to a range of meetings held both in-person and virtually, the authors are grateful to a local consultant who was able to carry out interviews with IDPs in settlements that the Refugees International team could not access due to security constraints.1


Somalia’s Complex and Protracted IDP Crisis

Somalia is one of the most complex and protracted humanitarian crises in the world, resulting from a combination of ongoing violence, food insecurity and poverty, climate-induced crises, and weak governance. With an estimated 4 million internally displaced people in Somalia, the country has one of the highest IDP populations in the world. It is also a highly diverse IDP population, comprised of those who have fled various Somali states, many of whom have been displaced multiple times. The vast majority are women and children, as men are more likely to stay back and cultivate land or look after livestock or property. Others have joined the fight or been killed. Most of the displaced women and children arriving to settlements reported walking for days – some for 7 to 8 days with no food. 

There are 2,007,600 internally displaced people in South Central, 571,400 in Somaliland, and 388,500 in Puntland. According to the Internal Displacements Monitored by Protection & Return Monitoring Network (PRMN), in February 2023, there were 23,064 people who were newly internally displaced. Among them, 143,721 were triggered by conflict and insecurity, while 84,111 were related to drought or lack of livelihood.

Source: OCHA

Despite a long history of interventions, Somalia still struggles to meet the needs of its wider population, let alone millions of internally displaced people, some returning refugees from Kenya, and small numbers of refugees from neighboring countries. Somalia has also seen new bouts of fighting in Las Anod, as well as intensified fighting against Al-Shabaab as the United States increases its support the Somali government as part of its anti-terrorism efforts on the continent. These recent developments further complicate one of the world’s most constrained and heavily securitized aid efforts.

Drivers of Internal Displacement in Somalia

Climate Change

The leading cause of internal displacement in Somalia is currently the effects of climate change, namely, devastating drought that is destroying livelihoods, pastoral communities, and much of Somalia’s ability to feed itself. Scholars have long-cited the devastating effects of climate change on Somalia, and the country is clearly bearing the brunt of a changing climate, despite having contributed very little to cause it.2

Somalia is facing an unprecedented sixth consecutive below-average rainfall season, leading to a drought considered to be the worst in 40 years. As a result, at least 6.5 million people – a staggering 40 percent of the entire population – need urgent food assistance. According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), almost 5.6 million people are experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity, with famine projected in south-central regions from April to June 2023. 

Children have borne the brunt of the drought. According to a new report, an estimated 43,000 excess deaths occurred in 2022 because of the drought compared to the 2017 and 2018 droughts. Approximately half of these deaths occurred among children under five. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) provides a sobering overview: “About 1.8 million children under five in Somalia will likely suffer from acute malnutrition throughout 2023 and need treatment. Of these, nearly 478,000 children are likely severely malnourished.”

The latest drought has also devastated livelihoods. Livestock, the backbone of Somalia’s pastoralist economy, have been decimated: over 3 million livestock – some three quarters of the country’s total livestock population – have died since mid-2021 due to the drought. This has a direct impact on the community that depends on them for survival, including children and lactating mothers who rely on them as a primary source of nutrition.

Among those interviewed for this report, a range of IDPs voiced their hardships – including flight, hunger, and the loss of family members – due to the drought:

“The river was dry and there was no rain. We did not harvest any crop in the last four years, and we lost everything we had. There was no food, no water. Then we fled from our village after the drought hit… I have been here for a month… I was walking for three days with my children because two of my children died of hunger while I was at home. That is why I ran away from my beloved village… When I came here, I got some food that we ate in our first days in the camp from a local NGO, but my husband goes to the town to work in construction. Sometimes he gets $4, and sometimes he gets nothing.”

A 25-year-old mother of five who fled from drought in the Lower Shabelle region in Somalia.

“There is no river in our village and no rain in the last three years, so we fled from the drought after we ate our last saving food, and three of the kids died while we were on the way to Mogadishu. We walked for three days until we reached a village, and then we rode on a lorry for another three days to come to Mogadishu.”

Hasan Aden Hassan, a 50-year-old farmer and a father of seven children. Three of his children died of hunger during the drought. He lives in Xamagoy IDP camp on the outskirt of Mogadishu.

“We are herdsmen and farmers, and the drought hit my village. We lost everything we used to have, and when we sold last my goat, I decided to flee from drought before we died of hunger… We had been walking for five days to reach Kuntuwarey district, and we rode on a lorry to come to the outskirt of Mogadishu. It is my second time to flee from drought in my lifetime: this one and the 2011 drought.”

A 60-year-old farmer from the Lower Shabelle region, who lives in an IDP camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu.

These accounts demonstrate that with little resilience to withstand recurring and severe droughts, many have no choice but to leave their homes, taking harrowing journeys in hopes of survival. While there has been investment from development actors, humanitarian actors, and financing institutions to increase resilience, more needs to be done. In a conversation about preventing the loss of precious rainwater into the Indian Ocean, one INGO leader highlighted that resilience investments have paid off when pursued: “Where we have drilled boreholes and installed solar panels, we’ve seen less displacement and even those communities [that were able to stay in their homes, were in turn able to host other IDPs from neighboring areas]. These resilience investments do pay off.”

Violence and Instability

Dealing with the effects of climate change would be challenging enough for a developing country. Yet Somalia has faced insecurity, violence, and conflict for decades. The collapse of the Somalia government in 1991 left the country fragile, with various state institutions that would ideally provide public goods almost non-existent. There have been various regional and multilateral efforts in stabilizing Somalia, including the African Union Peace Keeping Mission in Somalia (AMISOM3). AMISOM through a series of military operations dislodged Al Shabaab – an Islamist insurgent group that has long terrorized the country – from several territories the group held. Despite losing territories, the group remains the most potent security threat to Somalia, as it continues to target Somalia’s government and the African peacekeeping mission installations. Somalia’s current federal government came to power in 2012, overseeing five semiautonomous federal member states. The federal government, in concert with the United States and other states, launched an offensive against Al Shabaab beginning in August 2022.The ongoing conflict has ultimately seen more displacement and ongoing limitations on humanitarian workers in Al Shabaab-controlled areas. Despite some progress, Al Shabaab maintains power in many parts of the country.  

An Urban Story with Distinct Challenges

Internal displacement in Somalia is marked by mostly rural to urban movement and is set against a wider backdrop of urbanization in general. Recognizing this reality is far more than descriptive of the response needed; it is prescriptive, providing insights into unique challenges and the responses that must meet those challenges. As one UN official put it, “Once they reach the IDP camps – some after walking hundreds of miles – they can’t go back. They have no hope or future. They are the new urban poor.”

According to the UN, Somalia has one of the highest urbanization rates in the region: some 6.83 million people – or 45 percent of the 15.18 million total population – is settled in an urban area, and another 4 million are expected to be in urban areas by 2025. Similarly, UNDP notes that Somalia’s demographic growth is among the fastest in the world, with some 400,000 young people entering the labor market each year – a rate that could double in the next 25 years. It is a drastic truth, as one Somali journalist noted in 2020: “From a once predominantly rural population, Somalia is currently projected to be over 50 percent urbanized within the next six years.”

Somalia’s displacement to urban areas is directly related to livelihoods lost in rural areas, and the need for new livelihoods in urban areas. UN, NGO, and government sources emphasize that the majority of internally displaced people – both new arrivals and longstanding – will not return home. And as pastoralists pour into cities, the skills from their rural vocations will generally not translate to urban life. They face forced evictions from private land, and struggle to find work in the cities, even as they lack social networks and knowledge about services that can help them survive. Yet, “…At the same time, [IDPs] lose their agrarian skills over the years, ‘…which implies that displacement has brought about a permanent change in their lives and livelihoods.’”

As one internally displaced people told Refugees International:

“I have been here for two months, and we do not have a good life here because we do not know how to look for work in the city as it was the first time to flee from our home. We do not get any assistance at all…”

A 50-year-old farmer and father of seven children. Three of his children died of hunger during the drought. He lives in an IDP camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu.

Another local NGO worker highlighted the story of a man who had just arrived in a Mogadishu IDP settlement after losing 100 cows – all but one small calf. He said that that man is now looking for construction work, while his family is begging or doing laundry, “…going door to door asking to clean clothes, clean house for $4 a day.”

The urban dimensions of displacement also present challenges that specifically affect women, children, and those with disabilities differently. Indeed, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “79 percent of IDPs are women and children, many of whom are not only at risk of food insecurity but also in danger of sexual violence, exploitation, abuse, and psychological harm due to the breakdown of social support.” A gender-based assessment conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in IDP camps in October 2022 revealed an increase in gender-based violence, including intimate partner violence and rape, resulting in at least 35 percent of women and girls reporting feeling unsafe to move freely.

The urban dimensions of Somalia’s IDP situation also translates into specific challenges relating to shelter. Most NGOs acknowledged that some aid received is often taken by settlement leaders as payment, and that there are varying levels of services and protection in the IDP settlements, with most remaining in dire conditions. As one interviewee noted:

“Every camp has a different leader or gatekeeper. These people are living on rented land, rents 100 sq meter, 1,500 families living there. The gatekeeper takes a share as well. Some are corrupt. Sometimes people must give 25 percent or 75 percent of their aid to the gatekeeper. People won’t talk about it. They are scared to speak freely.”

Not surprisingly, then, the Humanitarian Response Plan noted that most internally displaced people still cite shelter as a top concern, linking it to a lack of services as well, including overcrowded sanitation facilities and difficulty accessing health services: “for some, it takes more than an hour to reach the nearest health facility.”

Similarly, as noted in a 2019 Refugees International report, forced evictions remain a major challenge for internally displaced people, often due to lack of land tenure agreement. Rapid urbanization is increasing the value of land, and displaced people continue to face evictions.4 Interviewees from the aid community continued to regularly cite forced evictions as an ongoing risk IDPs face in Mogadishu and other urban and peri-urban settings – a reality that further complicates immediate assistance and long-term development plans.

Durable Solutions to Displacement

Decades of effort have gone into addressing the above-mentioned complex factors driving internal displacement in Somalia. But durable solutions have consistently been hindered by a variety of governmental barriers including lack of legal identity documents, weak implementation of laws, and impediments to humanitarian workers.

Governmental Barriers to Durable Solutions

Legal Identity Documentation and the Need for a Census

Without proper data, it is difficult to plan a response and provide services. Urban planning in particular requires adequate data and housing, land and property laws, and a clear understanding of the population of concern. Yet Somalia has no centralized national ID database for the wider population, let alone displaced people and vulnerable minorities within the displaced population.5 

NGOs, UN, civil society, and IDP interviewees emphasized the dire need for Somalia to have a national identification system of documentation. Somalia has the lowest under-five birth registration rate in Sub-Saharan Africa, at just 3 percent. In the absence of a robust legal and administrative capacity from the federal government, there is a patchwork of federal, state, and municipal identification to access services for displaced people. Additionally, humanitarian agencies have some registration and identification systems, including the nascent social safety system Baxnaano. However, these systems tend to be exclusive and agency-specific, with little interoperability due to the fear of data privacy, limited data standardization across the agencies, and lack of consent in sharing the data. 

Identification is critical for all citizens, and internally displaced people in particular, to access relief assistance and social services. In a positive step, the government has started addressing some of the legal gaps: in early 2021, the FGS adopted the National Civil Registration & Vital Statistics Policy to create a national civil registration and vital statistics system. National Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) systems are essential to monitoring the progress of 67 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDG) indicators directly related to achieving 12 of the 17 SDGs. The World Bank also supports establishing the country’s first digitized foundational ID system, and in March 2023, Somalia passed its first civil registration and identity card issuance law. However currently, it still does not have a national ID law or privacy law. 

Similarly, interviewees also underscored the pressing need for Somalia’s government – with the help of the international community – to conduct a census. The recent May 2023 announcement that a census will be carried out is welcome news, as a census will be critical to generating data and hence tailoring a response. Indeed, the last time Somalia carried a successful population and housing census was in 1975.

The Federal Government of Somalia must therefore take the lead, in partnership with international organizations, to carry out the census as planned, and to produce data that can fast-track investment and programming that targets those in need and builds resilience. It must also undertake a program to ensure that all Somalis have national identification, which is critical for internally displaced people and the wider population to access their rights, obtain assistance, and for authorities and organizations to assess needs and craft responses accurately. 

Weak Implementation of Relevant Laws

Somalia’s government remains limited in its ability to respond to the basic needs of its citizens in large swaths of the country. Poverty, insecurity, and the effects of drought pose immense challenges to the general population and an already weak government. However, the federal government has taken some important steps in increasing accountability. In 2019, Refugees International highlighted Somalia’s adoption of the Kampala Convention, and some of its work to reduce the forced evictions of internally displaced people.

In 2018, Somalia adopted the Somalia Registration and Identification Policy, and on March 11, 2023, it Upper House passed the National Identification and Registration Authority Bill. The new law enables every Somali citizen to legally register their identity and gain access to government and private services. Furthermore, in 2019, Somalia passed the National Policy on Refugees and Internally Displaced Person policy. The law ensures that all IDPs enjoy full equality and rights as those of Somalia citizens as per Somalia’s Constitution and other laws of Somalia, and international humanitarian and human rights laws. The law prevents the discrimination of IDPs, including forced returns, and sets out protection and assistance standards.

The same year, Somalia ratified arguably one of the most comprehensive IDP protection normative frameworks, the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance for IDPs in Africa (the Kampala Convention). This instrument lays out a range of rights and protections for IDPs during and after displacement, and applies to national and sub-national authorities. Somalia also developed and adopted the National Durable Solutions Strategy (NDSS) 2020-2024.

The passage of these laws – those addressing registration, identity, and documentation, as well as those that are IDP-specific – provides the legislative building blocks for sustainably addressing Somalia’s chronic IDP situation in a more organized way. Indeed, having identification, strong property rights law, and IDP legislation and normative standards all work toward more organized, efficient planning and response.

However, just passing the laws and adopting the policies is not enough. Implementation is key, and to do so requires greater capacity within the government. To that end, Somalia’s federal government must work to strengthen the National Durable Solutions Secretariat so it can convene and coordinate between various ministries and agencies, and the federal member states on durable solutions to displacement. This should be done to better clarify roles in IDP response, reducing duplication and confusion. It should also adequately fund and staff the existing line ministries and agencies spearheading IDP durable solutions in coordination with the donors. It should also finalize the Constitution, and work to implement more fully existing laws, including the Refugee, Returnee and IDP Policy, the IDP Policy Framework, and eviction guidelines, which provide important protections, resources, and accountability for internally displaced people.

Challenges Facing Humanitarians

Stuck on Repeat

Somalia’s protracted humanitarian crises appear stuck on repeat for decades. Many people have been displaced multiple times as severe droughts and ongoing violence from the fight with Al Shabaab lead to fresh displacements amidst previous ones. One interviewee lamented that it felt like “Groundhog Day…the same scene over and over.” Yet another found the conversation about durable solutions “…incredibly difficult in the face of ongoing, perpetual crises.”

A review of policy, academic, UN, and NGO reports since the 1990s demonstrates many of the same crises and responses, with even many of the same calls for building resilience to withstand new shocks. For example, a 2014 report cites another report from ten years prior, which predicted:

“…a state of chronic complex emergency [with] little authoritative government, high levels of criminality, sporadic armed conflict, lack of economic recovery, endemic humanitarian needs, minimal health care and education and population displacement. As a result, most operational humanitarian activities will remain ad hoc, lack sustainability, and depend on security.”

Aid workers have managed to learn from some of the repetitive cycles of famine and drought, but much improvement is still needed. One NGO worker stated, “…the devastation of a population living on the verge of famine over and over, year after year, is devastating. We say, ‘great, we staved off famine.’ But we have [so many] people in severe malnutrition, just being maintained. This has major long-term impacts.”

The repetition of humanitarian crisis and response is further challenged by high turnover rates of aid workers. Somalia is considered a difficult humanitarian setting – for international and national staff – and aid worker burnout is high. When those with firsthand contextual knowledge leave their jobs or move elsewhere, institutional memory is lost. Also, many aid workers are based in Nairobi or only in the green (safe) zone of Mogadishu, which leads to limited firsthand knowledge of what is going on. One interviewee felt that most high-level staff have a “skewed perspective,” and found it troubling to “see how little we have learned over the years.”

The Targeting of Aid Workers, Lack of Access, and Mistrust

Humanitarian aid workers in Somalia work in an environment laden with severe security risks and restrictions. Civilians have borne the brunt of violent attacks in Somalia. In 2022, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk reported that “613 civilians have been killed and 948 injured,” the highest number since 2017, and more than a 30 percent rise from 2021. Most of these were due to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), the vast majority of which were attributed to Al-Shabaab. Aid workers are not spared the violence. In fact, they are regularly targeted and threatened, and routinely denied access in areas under Al Shabaab’s control. In 2020 alone, 15 aid workers were killed, 12 workers were injured, 24 abducted, and 14 arrested. 

Aid groups also have to contend with punishing and often erratic bureaucracy imposed by Al Shabaab, and the challenging reality of trying to comply with the international counter-terrorism material support law, which exists to avoid aid falling into the hands of Al Shabaab. Aid workers interviewed for this report indicated that preventing aid from falling into the hands of Al Shabaab is very difficult, given the group’s tight control over areas in need of aid.

The lack of access has perpetuated a dearth in trust between aid workers and those receiving aid. One local aid worker indicated that many international NGOs are unable to reach the majority of the IDP population and struggled to grasp the scope of need. Another UN worker lamented that “due to security constraints and gatekeepers, there are some IDPs, especially in minority groups, that we’ve never even spoken to or reached in any way over the years.” Another stated, “there are some IDPs – even here in Mogadishu – that have never seen an NGO in their life.”

Among IDPs interviewed, ad hoc and limited aid access was a common concern:

“I have been here almost a year now, and my husband passed away here after he became sick. I get three-time food aid from local NGOs, but I do not know their names… I become sick when I came here a year ago, and I do not have anything to treat myself, and I have a severe headache and become weak day after day. and we get only breakfast meal a whole day and go to bed hungry at night.”

A 60-year-old farmer from the Lower Shabelle region, who lives in an IDP camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu.

Ways Forward

Despite the challenges illustrated above, improvement in the response is possible. Broadly speaking, actors should continue to do their best to view Somalia’s displacement through a holistic lens that draws upon peace, security, humanitarian and development approaches and tools. Indeed, given Somalia’s complex landscape of climate and conflict-induced displacement, playing out in a largely urban theater, the response must draw on all these sectors.

Several potential steps could be taken to better adapt the responses of both government and international actors. This section highlights a few of these, particularly urging the implementation of an area-based approach to address the urban realities of internal displacement in Somalia.

Putting Local Organizations and IDPs in the Driver’s Seat

At the heart of any response needs to be meaningful participation on the part of those who are displaced. Humanitarian and development actors must take additional efforts to ensure that internally displaced people from diverse backgrounds (gender, clan, and geography) are able to meaningfully participate in the conception, design, planning, implementation, and monitoring of any response to their situation, and the relevant solutions being proposed. Women in particular make up the majority of internally displaced people in Somalia, but seldom have decision-making power over programs designed to provide them with protection and assistance.

Given that access is a key challenge in Somalia, this is a challenging task. One clear way to overcome such limitation on access due to security constraints is to emphasize building local partnerships with groups that have greater access and pre-existing knowledge of the population and their needs. Given the long, complex history of mistrust between aid actors and those receiving aid, as well as cases of corruption and misuse of funds, building these partnerships will require intensive time and energy. This could include increasing localized funding and holding more meetings and conferences with local NGOs. Outgoing international or national staff should also find additional ways to transfer contextual and situational knowledge to avoid losing institutional knowledge as staff turnover rates are high.

Building partnerships with local groups has been on the international community’s agenda for years in Somalia, and there has been some success. The IRC, for example, has built various local partnerships to reach further into Somalia. Yet even local actors face security constraints, and aid remains limited in some areas. UN and aid workers also highlighted the importance of engaging women even further in aid delivery, something that the World Bank supports, as well. When women hold greater leadership and agency in aid programming and policies, the wider population benefits; corruption is lessened, and aid is more likely to reach those who need it most. Studies also show that cash-transfers through mobile money can be important for women, especially where insecurity and GBV risk limit their mobility.

An Urban-centric Approach to Building Resilience

The response to internal displacement in Somalia and thinking around durable solutions must shift to an urban-centric approach to resilience. As the population increasingly shifts from rural to urban, and many that have moved to urban areas will not return, resilience needs to pivot accordingly. Development actors and financing institutions like the World Bank have engaged in Somalia for years, yet more needs to be done to help build resilience against future shocks, such as drought or flooding. Given that many IDPs are coming from rural pastoral livelihoods that will not be a viable means of survival in an urban setting, aid and development models must consider how to support new modes of self-reliance.

Pervasive poverty runs deep in Somalia, including the urban centers. The daily income of an average poor Somali is only 71 percent the international poverty line of $1.90. This pre-existing poverty leaves Somalis highly vulnerable to even the slightest shock due to drought, fighting, health, or other circumstances. Even a small challenge can send a Somali family in this group into crisis. As stated in the National Development Plan, “…it takes very little perturbation in the lives of the very poor to get them to a point where they just do not have the means to survive. Meagre livelihoods fail, food consumption drops still lower, malnutrition rates suddenly rise, and resistance to infectious disease falls and disaster ensues.”

Aid workers also emphasized the need for greater livelihoods funding in the urban context, and increasingly diverse livelihood planning. One noted, “Pastoralism is sacred in Somalia. But it is no longer sustainable as it exists. We can no longer say ‘if we can just get through this drought, things will be back to normal.” Given that most IDPs are now in urban settings and are unlikely to return anytime soon, if ever, humanitarian and development actors should increase investment in helping IDPs access work so they can become self-reliant. Among IDPs interviewed for this report, some expressed this desire:

“The main challenge that we face is that we do not have the skill to work in the city. We request for training to get a skill that we can sustain our family.”

A 35-year-old mother of four living in an IDP camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu.

“We had been walking for over four days, and we reached this IDP camp praise be to Allah. I have been here for four months now. I go to the city to do laundry work and get two to three dollars per day, which is not sufficient for the livelihood of my family… The main challenge that I face is there is no sufficient aid, and I do not get regular work to earn some money; we eat a one-time meal. but we sometimes do not get a meal for a day although we have free tap water inside IDP camp, and I feel safe when I am in IDP camp… There is no way to go back to my village now because the drought and lack of water still exist there… I will stay in Mogadishu.”

A 45-year-old mother of four who fled from Lower Shabelle region to Mogadishu, and now lives in an IDP camp.

Some NGOs also mentioned high birthrates in Somalia and the need for an approach that places renewed emphasis on reproductive health as large families join the urban population:

“This will be a huge problem down the road. There are pastoralists who have lost their herds due to climate change. They have died off. But they also have massive families that will need to sub-divide the herds they have left. Even in good times, it’s not enough to live off. The same is true of sub-dividing land to a point where it cannot sustain a family anymore. These are many reasons that people are moving to urban areas.”

Another aid worker noted, “Most families have at least 5 children, many have more. In most cases, the father, if he is there, goes to look for work in the city by 5:00 a.m. – maybe working construction at $6 per day – and the mother either begs or washes clothes. These are basically the only ways people survive.”

Among humanitarian actors working on the immediate response, the understandable mindset of urgency leaves little space to think about long term. As one put it, “There is not a lot of time to talk about resilience when in constant turmoil.” Yet, as discussed below, longer funding and program cycles of development organizations will be better-suited than humanitarian organizations to respond to livelihoods needs, and aid actors stressed the need for donors to push NGOs to work differently in this new landscape: “NGOs are part of the problem… we’re trying to get funded and keep going… If a village already has a lot of tailors, don’t train more than the village needs.” Cash-based assistance was also highlighted as another successful way to improve the self-sufficiency of internally displaced people, particularly in urban areas.

Drawing on Area-based Approaches (ABA)

Internal displacement in Somalia is playing out in urban centers. If the aid community fully recognizes this, it will mean a pivot in how aid and development responses are crafted. Shifting to area-based coordination and delivery could be one way to do this, which would in turn facilitate better alignment with the government and inclusion of local NGOs and civil society. Area-based approaches are particularly useful for long-term, complex crises in urban areas, where short-term relief will only go so far. As Jeremy Konyndyk, Patrick Saez, and Rose Worden write:

“Area-based approaches address needs holistically within a defined community or geography; provide aid that is explicitly multisector and multidisciplinary; and design and implement assistance through participatory engagement with affected communities and leaders.”

This approach moves away from targeting individuals to looking at the wider population within a given geography. While Somalia’s adoption of the IDP, housing, property, and identification laws have been positive steps, humanitarian, development and peace actors working in Somalia should transition into meaningful more coordinated funding and programing that pursues solutions that suit the displaced and host communities together, and can address the humanitarian needs and development gaps simultaneously. As one humanitarian interviewee stated, “You cannot have development on an empty stomach.”

As one humanitarian interviewee stated, “You cannot have development on an empty stomach.”

The salient aspect of area-based approach is that the area, rather than the sector or the target group, becomes the entry point for response. The area-based approach, in contrast to the sector-based cluster system, is a more natural fit to addressing a protracted urban displacement situation because it deals with displaced people in the setting where they are displaced. This is particularly important in Somalia, where internally displaced people are at risk of forced eviction, as most reside on private land. In these cases, they could still benefit from programming even after eviction. Under an area-based approach, aid would not cease once IDPs left their settlement, nor would it be provided under a sectoral framework. The holistic and multisectoral nature of ABA is particularly well-suited for an urban context like Somalia.

Similarly, area-based approaches include host communities and urban poor in the planning and execution of programs, thus doing a better job of considering the needs of the whole community. In contrast to the cluster approach, which can work well for immediate humanitarian response delegation of responsibilities but tends not to lead to durable solutions, an area-based approach more fully bridges the nexus between humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding actors. 

An area-based approach could also do a better job of accounting for diversity within the IDP population, including new arrivals and long-standing IDPs – two groups with very different needs. Indeed, many aid actors interviewed highlighted that IDPs in Somalia are not a homogenous group, yet the aid community struggles to account for this. While IDPs are mostly women and children, they come from a range of ethnic groups and clans. In addition long-term IDPs (merged with the wider urban poor population) have different needs than newly arriving IDPs. Their concerns align more with a need for local integration and urban poverty responses than a humanitarian caseload. As one NGO worker reflected, “If they live and work here, and it’s been 10-20 years, how long do we call them IDPs?” An ABA could therefore be a more fitting response to this combination of IDPs, as it is less concerned with the labels and distinctions than traditional humanitarian responses.

Area-based approaches could also spur additional development agendas in line with whole-of-society solutions – one of the critical pillars of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Action Agenda on Internal Displacement.


Internal displacement due to climate and conflict-related drivers in Somalia continues to climb, and it remains one of the world’s most dire and longest-standing humanitarian crises. Yet the face of the crisis is being defined by urbanization, and that means that aid and development actors must pivot their response accordingly. Amidst ongoing emergency response and lifesaving measures, development actors should undertake area-based approaches, which can better respond to the needs of long-term and newly arriving internally displaced people in urban centers like Mogadishu. In addition, further investments into resilience, livelihood training, and social safety nets should be pursued by development actors to ensure that fewer people are displaced in the future. Moreover, international organizations should prioritize greater efforts to work with local partners and, when possible, women should be enlisted in planning and programming. This will not only help the design of projects to be more in step with those they are serving, but will also help to overcome some of the mistrust between aid actors and those receiving aid, as well as some of the severe access limitations due to security constraints.

Somalia will likely continue to see increased frequency and intensity of climate change events, which will displace even more in the years to come. There is little doubt that the needs will be even greater – a cruel reality for a country that has already suffered so much in recent decades. The sad truth is that most displaced people inside Somalia will not be able to return home anytime soon, if ever. Recognizing this means a new response model must be pursued – one that breaks the current cycle and considers Somalia’s urban future.


1 The consultant wishes to remain unnamed in this report due to security risks.

2 See, for example, Eklöw, Karolina, and Florian Krampe. Climate-related security risks and peacebuilding in Somalia. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), 2019,

See also Wise, Jacqui. “Climate emergency: Millions at risk of famine and disease in Somalia.” BMJ: British Medical Journal (Online)379 (2022): o2413.

Ogallo, Linda A., Philip Omondi, Gilbert Ouma, and Gordon Wayumba. “Climate change projections and the associated potential impacts for Somalia.” (2018).

Thalheimer, Lisa, Moritz P. Schwarz, and Felix Pretis. “Large weather and conflict effects on internal displacement in Somalia with little evidence of feedback onto conflict.” Global Environmental Change 79 (2023): 102641.

Croome, Amy, and Muna Hussein. “Climate crisis, gender inequalities and local response in Somalia/Somaliland.” Forced Migration Review 64 (2020).

Kolmannskog, Vikram. “Climate change, human mobility, and protection: initial evidence from Africa.” Refugee Survey Quarterly 29, no. 3 (2010): 103-119.

Hall, Nina. Displacement, development, and climate change: International organizations moving beyond their mandates. Routledge, 2016.

Chaudhry, Shazia, and James Ouda. “Perspectives on the Rights of Climate Migrants in the Horn of Africa: A Case Study of Somalia.” Journal of Somali Studies 8, no. 1 (2021): 13.

Warsame, Abdimalik Ali, Ibrahim Abdukadir Sheik-Ali, Galad Mohamed Barre, and Abdulnasir Ahmed. “Examining the effects of climate change and political instability on maize production in Somalia.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research 30, no. 2 (2023): 3293-3306.

3 AMISOM transitioned into the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia in 2022.

4 For more, see Somalia Humanitarian Response Plan,

See also Erik Bryld, Christine Kamau & M. A. Mohamoud (2020) Using an adaptive approach to making gatekeepers accountable to internally displaced persons in Mogadishu, Somalia, Development in Practice, 30:8, 982-993,DOI: 10.1080/09614524.2020.1754765

O. E. Bellini, A. Campioli, D. Chiaroni, C. M. L. Talamo, N. Atta, A. Dalla Valle. 2022. Construction Technologies and Materials for Sustainable Affordable Housing. Innovative Approach for the Development of Sustainable Settlements in East Africa, pages 137-166.

Jutta Bakonyi. (2021) The Political Economy of Displacement: Rent Seeking, Dispossessions and Precarious Mobility in Somali Cities. Global Policy 12:S2, pages 10-22.

Mohamed Jelle et al. “Forced evictions and their social and health impacts in Southern Somalia: A qualitative study in Mogadishu IDP camps,” Global Health Action, 6 Sept 2021.

Anna Lindley, “Displacement in contested place: governance, movement and settlement in the Somali territories,” Journal of Eastern African Studies, 9 May 2013.

Mohamed Haji Ingiriis, “Profiting from the failed state of Somalia: the violence political marketplace and insecurity in contemporary Mogadishu,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 18 June 2020.

5 There is no agreed definition of legal identity in international law. Broadly, however, legal identity refers to a range of “…elements and characteristics (e.g. name, sex, place and date of birth) that defines an individual and governs the relationships, rights, and obligations under public and private law.” These rights might include the right to work, attend school, get married, confirm parentage, receive health care, access government services, vote, inherit, buy, and sell property. 

Featured Image: A woman in an IDP camp in Somalia. (Photo by Maciej Moskwa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)