Mortality and malnutrition rates among children at Hartishek, a former refugee camp in southeastern Ethiopia, are critically high, aid agencies warned on Wednesday.
Save the Children UK (SCFUK) has called for immediate food distribution, medical support and proper sanitation at Hartishek, which was once the world’s largest refugee camp, and home to thousands of Somalis.
Hartishek now houses internally displaced persons (IDPs) from within Ethiopia. Humanitarian sources told IRIN that the IDPs – who are said to number 5,400 - say they have received no assistance for the last four months.
"The situation is critical and getting worse unless something is done promptly," SCFUK said in a report presented to the Ethiopian government, the UN and aid agencies at a meeting of the government’s Emergency Nutrition Coordination Unit (ENCU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.
According to accepted international guidelines, any under-five mortality rates that are above two per 10,000 children per day should be treated as an emergency.
SCFUK said the figure in Hartishek has reached 4.87 per 10,000 per day. Severe acute malnutrition of children under five years old has reached 5 percent – which is also an emergency level.
"The situation is very serious," said Eric Durpaire, a project officer with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in eastern Ethiopia. He said UNICEF would start emergency feeding next week, and that the agency was already trucking in two tankers of water every day.
"They also need food as they don’t have any means to get food at the moment," Durpaire said.
"More generally these people need to be reintegrated into their place of origin, when the place of origin is prepared to receive them in terms of proper facilities, health, water and food. That is clearly a longer-term issue," he added.
Humanitarian workers said they feared the Ethiopian IDPs were "slipping through the gap" as aid organisations worked out how best to help the families who have set up home at the camp.
A spokeswoman for the UN Development Programme (UNDP) said the agency had been planning to reintegrate the families back to their homes, but the plan had been held up by funding constraints.
UNDP was now seeking support from other UN agencies in Ethiopia to help the IDPs, she added.
The ENCU, which had called in SCFUK’s malnutrition rapid-response team to evaluate the situation in Hartishek, was unavailable for comment.
Some 600,000 Somalis poured into the semi-arid desert region of Hartishek in 1988, at the start of the civil war in the northwest of Somalia, which is now the self-declared Republic of Somaliland.
The refugee camp closed at the end of last year, and the United Nations refugee agency pulled out. But thousands of IDPs remained on the site.
There are an estimated 200,000 IDPs in Ethiopia - often women and children - displaced by war, famine and drought.
Along the disputed 1,000 km border with Eritrea, some 76,000 Ethiopians have still not returned to their homes, as many areas are littered with landmines.
Africa's 12 million IDPs do not have the same legal status or rights as refugees, but are often victims of the same conflicts or natural disasters that have forced refugees to flee their homes.