(CNN) -- Recent headlines focusing on the rash of pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia should instead focus on the humanitarian crisis driving Somalis to commit crimes on the high seas, an international aid group said Thursday.
Somalia's population have suffered from a lack of the most basic services.
An estimated one-third of Somalia's population desperately needs emergency aid, the international agency Oxfam said, as donors to Somalia met in Brussels, Belgium.
"Without economic opportunities offering alternatives to criminality, and without law and order to curb these activities, then the massive economic returns of hijacking ships will continue to drive piracy," Robert Maletta, policy adviser for Oxfam, said in a news release.
"The international community must urgently focus their attention on finding ways to assist the millions of people in desperate need," Maletta said.
Somalia, which is racked by poverty and conflict, has not had a fully functioning government since 1991, when its president was overthrown in Mogadishu, the capital. Drought and rising food prices have added to the nation's problems, according to Maletta.
"Families are finding it difficult to meet their most basic needs, as prices for basic food items are at record high levels," he said.
Not only do civilians need emergency aid, they also need protection from military abuses, aid groups said.
"Since Somalia's security forces have committed so many violent abuses against civilians, efforts to strengthen them also need to make them more accountable," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director for Human Rights Watch.
The combination of security and humanitarian assistance is necessary to curb piracy in the region, which borders the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, aid groups said.
The April 8 hijacking of the U.S.-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama made headlines worldwide when its American captain, Richard Phillips, was held hostage by four Somali men.
Phillips was rescued four days later, after U.S. Navy snipers fatally shot three pirates. The fourth suspect, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, was brought to New York to face federal piracy charges.
Ships with aid supplies destined for countries in the region, including Somalia, also have been hijacked in the Indian Ocean.
Pirates held a ship carrying U.N. food aid for 100 days in June 2005. Two years ago, a cargo ship and crew delivering U.N. aid to Somalia were held and released after 40 days.
The Maersk was going to the coastal town of Mombasa, Kenya, to deliver relief supplies intended for various countries in the region, including Somalia.