Relief SCENE:Refugees
No Room at the Inn
Desperate Refugee Hordes Living in Squalor on Outskirts of Camp
By M ARTE 07/05/2011
Refugees at Dagahaley Camp in Kenya
©Somalia Report
Refugees at Dagahaley Camp in Kenya

Dagahaley refugee camp, one of the three camps that make up the Dadaab refugee complex in north-eastern Kenya, has seen a massive influx of new refugees from war-torn Somalia in recent weeks, most of them are fleeing the ravaging drought.

UN agencies say they have been registering more than 1,300 new refugees every day in the last two weeks. Many of them - including women and children – walk hundreds of kilometers to reach the overcrowded camp.

According to eyewitness accounts, some of the refugees die on their way. Those who make it find their hopes of immediate food, water and shelter dashed. It takes them days to get a ration card, and to get proper shelter takes much longer.

Kenya hosts more than 300,000 refugees, mainly from Somalia, in Dadaab, which was initially designed to accommodate not more than 90 thousand refugees. Space is at a premium, despite the fact that a new camp, Ifo II, has been ready for some time. The Kenyan government has been stalled on opening the new camp, reportedly afraid that this will encourage even more Somalis to come.

The new camp can hold 40,000, and once more work is done it is expected to hold 80,000. Emmanuel Nyabera, spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency in Kenya, says the High Commissioner for Refugees is coming to Kenya to hold high-level meetings later this week, and that he hopes to get the camp opened very soon.

Living rough

Until then, thousands of new arrivals have been forced to put up makeshift structures on the outskirts of Dagahaley.

Maow Hassan, a father of five, arrived at this point three days ago with his children and wife. He has not had enough water and food for the past three days and has been living on handouts from the established refugee population. It took his family 35 days to travel to the camp.

“We have nothing here, no food, no water and no shelter,” says the 52-year-old. “We are just staring at empty space, hoping that we will receive some help soon.”

However, Hassan still counts himself fortunate.

“We are lucky to have made this far,” he says, adding that many of his friends and relatives did not complete the journey.

“We have left many of them on the way, struggling to reach here,” he says. “Many more have died.”

He comes from Lower Shabelle, which was the bread basket of Somalia during peace time. Now, after three years of failed rains, the crops have all withered.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), over 10 million people have been affected by the regional drought, which it describes as “the worst to have hit the region in 60 years.”

But two decades of civil war in Somalia, which led to a serious breakdown in infrastructure, means Somalis are hit far harder than their neighbours.

Children suffer the worst

The desperation is evident in the eyes of young children who cling to the clothes and the backs of their helpless mothers. With red eyes, sunken cheek bones and hollow stomachs, children as young as one languish under the burning sun.

High levels of malnutrition are being seen among children admitted at the health facilities across the camps. Dr Edward Chege, who works at the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic in Dagahaley, says some of them have arrived in serious condition.

“The worst case that I have seen was a child who had severe malnutrition, and then suffered from the measles,” he says. “Due to high levels of vitamin A deficiency, the child got cornea perforation; now the child cannot see, and may lose his sight forever if not put on emergency treatment.”

He says more than 60 children are admitted to the clinic daily. In its most recent report, international aid group Save The Children said over 800 children arrive at the camps on daily basis.

As the situation deteriorates, many of the older refugees are taking it upon themselves to help the new arrivals with whatever donations they can afford, especially food and clothing. Mobilized by clerics, the refugees pull their resources together in an effort to help the new arrivals.

UNHCR, which manages the three camps, say it needs to speed up its process of accepting, and registering the refugees in a bid to increase their efficiency and capacity in handling the influx