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Amidst the region's worst drought in decades, Somali refugees crowd camps in Kenya

© UNICEF Kenya/2011/Holt
UNICEF Kenya Child Protection Specialist Zeinab Ahmed (right) speaks with Somali refugees in a camp in Dadaab, north-eastern Kenya.

By Chris Niles

NEW YORK, USA, 11 July 2011– Hundreds of thousands of refugees are overwhelming camps in Dadaab, north-eastern Kenya, where they are seeking a haven from drought and conflict in neighbouring Somalia.

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 Dagahaley, Ifo and Hagadera camps in Dadaab were planned for 90,000 people and are now home to about 370,000. Taken together, the camps comprise the largest refugee settlement in the world, and their resources are stretched beyond the limit.

“There are too many refugees arriving,” says Ms. Ahmed, who has visited the camps.

According to the UN refugee agency, Dadaab received an average of 6,000 to 8,000 Somali refugees every month during 2010. This year, the average has increased to 10,000 per month, and the numbers have been rising sharply in recent weeks.

A treacherous journey

The refugees arrive mainly on foot, exhausted and dehydrated from a journey that can take up to two months.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0997/Holt
A Somali mother and child wait to be registered at Dagehaley camp, one of three camps in Dadaab, north-eastern Kenya, where overcrowding is putting pressure on already limited resources amidst a severe regional drought.

“It’s a very long, treacherous journey,” says Ms. Ahmed. “By the time they come to the camps, they are hungry, very emaciated, some of them almost naked, holding their children.”

When they get to Kenya, the refugees tell horrific stories of deprivation and danger.

“Some of them lost family members along the way due to hunger and thirst. Some reported that family members were eaten by wild animals,” Ms. Ahmed reports. There are also unconfirmed reports of armed militia members attempting to prevent people from leaving Somalia.

Regional food crisis

The sheer volume of Somali refugees – not all of them coming to Kenya – is putting severe stress on host countries in the region, which are themselves facing extreme hardship from the worst drought in decades.

Eastern Africa is in the grip of a food crisis that the United Nations estimates is affecting at least 10 million people, including 2 million children under the age of five. And the situation continues to deteriorate.

The UN is calling for a much stronger response from governments and donors. Aid programmes have less than half the money needed to mount an adequate crisis response.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0995/Holt
Newly arrived refugees from Somalia wait to be registered and receive food aid in Dadaab, north-eastern Kenya.

UNICEF’s work in the refugee camps focuses on identifying unaccompanied minors, ensuring that children and mothers have enough to eat and providing safe spaces for children. “There are assigned counsellors who talk to these children. They are refugee staff [who] help them to develop in terms of mental ability, to develop their playing skills. But those are few,” explains Ms. Ahmed.

Resources stretched

With current resources, the camps cannot meet the demand. The UN estimates that 15,000 Somalis have left their country every month this year, bound for Kenya and Ethiopia. And while conflict has been a fact of life in Somalia for years, it’s drought that has driven them to breaking point.

They are now so desperate that they will risk their lives, and those of their families, to escape a situation that is not much better than the one they left. In Kenya, they are joining other refugees who have been living in the camps for some years.

“They have to act as hosts for their new arrivals from Somalia,” says Ms. Ahmed. “This puts the refugee population at a very difficult stage, because they have so little, and they still have to share. And to me, this is the height of the need in the camps.”




8 July 2011: UNICEF Kenya Child Protection Specialist Zeinab Ahmed talks about the conditions faced by Somali refugees crowding into camps in Dadaab, eastern Kenya.
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