Refugee surge stretching camp facilities

Maka Abullahi Keinan, 18, is among hundreds of refugees newly arrived from Somalia at Dagahaley, one of the three main refugee camps in Dadaab town in northeastern Kenya.

"Before, the fighting was just between the militias but now they come to the towns looting, burning and raping women. This forced us to flee," Keinan told IRIN.

"I have three children but I do not know where my daughter and my husband are. I just managed to flee with two of my children, the rest of my relatives were killed in the fighting," she said.

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has registered some 38,000 new arrivals in Dadaab in 2008, the vast majority of them from Somalia, where widespread violence, extensive drought, severe food price rises and runaway inflation have created a major humanitarian crisis.

In January 2008, 5,739 Somalis came to Dadaab. The previous year, the same month's total was just 343.

"It took us about 40 days to get here from Mogadishu, mainly on foot. We had to keep to the bush," said Keinan.

Like most of the new arrivals in Dadaab, finding adequate food and shelter are the main priorities for Keinan. "If you have not yet been registered you end up begging for food," she said.

According to UNHCR, providing shelter for the new arrivals is a growing challenge. "Owing to the increased number of new arrivals in 2007 and 2008, UNHCR standards in refugee settlements are difficult to adhere to," according to briefing notes UNHCR gave visiting journalists.

There are inadequate resources and land to properly allocate refugee families and to assure proper shelter for everyone, the agency said. Fewer than 25 percent of the families in the camps have private latrines.

"Now there is minimal sanitation for the new arrivals," Margaret Pacho, a monitoring and evaluation officer with the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) in Dadaab, said.

"All three camps are rapidly reaching their capacity in terms of space available for new arrivals,” said UNHCR.

The three camps in Dadaab were home to 210,500 refugees in late August 2008, a 20 percent rise since the start of the year. With little sign of the crisis in Somalia easing, UNHCR expected more refugees to arrive in the coming weeks.

"Because they [the new refugees] come in through the porous border, some of them hide and we have to liaise with the community health workers to encourage them to come for medical screening," Pacho said.

One case of polio was confirmed among the refugee population in Dadaab in 2007. Cases of whooping cough had also been identified early this year. The two diseases have long been eradicated in Kenya.

Photo: Allan Gichigi/IRIN
Abdul Aziz Muhammad Arrukban, special humanitarian envoy of the UN Secretary-General, speaking to refugee families in Dadaab

Pacho said the main health issues among the new arrivals included malnutrition, parasitic infestation, and skin diseases. Others had multiple fractures and gunshot wounds.

Acute respiratory infections, delivery complications among women and diarrhoeal diseases were also prevalent.

"Since they [the new arrivals] lack food and shelter some of them steal at night," Deko Abdirahman Mohamed, the chairwoman of Dagahaley camp, said.

"When we receive our food rations we donate to the new arrivals," she said. "But since they are many, we cannot help everyone."

“We also have to queue longer to get treatment and there is a water shortage," she said. "We are requesting for the construction of a new camp to accommodate the new arrivals."

The high population has also led to a rise in commodity prices. "A kilogramme of meat is being sold at 160 shillings [US$2.40] up from 60 [about $1] in 2007," she said. The price of a cup of milk has also tripled.

An estimated 3.2 million people both in urban and rural areas of Somalia are facing extreme poverty and need humanitarian aid.

"The situation is desperate, the children especially need help," Abdul Aziz Muhammad Arrukban, the special humanitarian envoy for the UN Secretary-General, said after visiting an IDP camp in Wajid, south-central Somalia. Some of the hospitals are now being used as shelters for internally displaced persons.

"They [the people] have been through war, drought for four years and are now feeling the effects of the food crisis," Arrukban said.

"The people really need assistance," he said. He said food prices had gone up by as much as 300 percent, reducing access. "How will the people survive if they cannot help themselves?"

Commenting on the prevailing insecurity in the country and its effects on humanitarian access, he said: "I know that it is difficult but the UN will continue to work to deliver humanitarian aid despite the security challenges."

"Hopefully, Muslim countries will help the country especially now that Ramadan is starting," he said.

"Somalia is really at a stage where the situation is getting increasingly acute and a cause for major concern," Mark Bowden, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, said in an interview with IRIN on 27 August.