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Médecins Sans Frontières' "unprecedented" decision to leave Somalia

MSF doctor Monica Rull examines a child for malnutrition in a camp for displaced people in downtown Mogadishu, Somalia. Credit: MSF

Remember 1991? It feels so long ago the year of Operation Desert Storm, Rodney King's beating, the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It was also the year Somalia plunged into civil war and Médecins Sans Frontières first entered the country to provide humanitarian aid. The international organization has stayed there ever since – until today.

After 22 years, MSF has announced that unacceptably-dangerous security conditions in Somalia have forced them to make the "massive decision" of packing up their medical bags and leaving the war-torn country.

"MSF is in the business of bringing health care to people in crisis. We’re not in the business of leaving people behind who are still in a crisis situation," said MSF Holland's general director Arjan Hehenkamp in a press conference today. "This is why it is such a painful and heavy decision, and such an unprecedented decision, for MSF to feel compelled to leave Somalia."

Sixteen MSF workers have been killed in Somalia since 1997, including two staffers who were gunned down in Mogadishu in December 2011. In July, two Spanish employees were finally released after being abducted from the Dadaab refugee camp and held for nearly two years.

Although MSF is known for operating in the most grueling and difficult environments, the situation in Somalia has reached a crisis point, the organization says. Authorities and clan elders are no longer able or willing to give MSF a humanitarian space, says Stephen Cornish, executive director of MSF Canada.

"Some of these very authorities that we’ve relied on for security guarantees are either no longer able to provide these guarantees in the best cases or in the worst cases have either been involved ... or looked the other way while some of these events and incidences have been carried out," Cornish says. "That is really the most striking realization for us."

So what does this mean for the people of Somalia? Well, just imagine living in a place where your doctor's office suddenly shuts down, the 24-hour clinic is shuttered and the local hospital closes its emergency room, Cornish says.

Last year's statistics also paint a picture of what a Somalia without MSF will look like if the humanitarian organization had left one year ago, then 30,000 severely-malnourished patients would not have been treated, nearly 60,000 vaccinations would not have been carried out and 2,750 surgeries would not have been performed. MSF also delivered 7,300 babies in 2012.

In Somalia, the medical humanitarian organization is "clearly one of the most important healthcare providers," Cornish says.

"Last year alone, we conducted over 600,000 consultations and 40,000 hospital admissions," he says. "We run the only emergency pediatric service in Mogadishu where young children suffering from acute illnesses can receive emergency care. In Jowhar, we run a maternal hospital where emergency C-sections and complicated pregnancies are conducted.

"In some areas, we are the only providers of mother and child health of medical consultations. In those areas, it’s going to be quite tragic that civilians in many cases will find themselves either with very diminished quality of care or perhaps in some cases with no care."

You can watch a video filmed by MSF explaining their decision below. The video, and a corresponding press release, can also be found on MSF Canada's website here.



Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar


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