Kenya refugee camp on the brink

June 17, 2009 12:00 am

, DADAAB, Kenya, Jun 17 – The world’s largest refugee camp is bursting at the seams, aid groups warn, asking that Kenya grant more land to host the hundreds of Somalis arriving in the UN-run Dadaab cluster every day.

Famine and unabated fighting between pro-government forces and insurgents in Somalia continues to drive large groups of displaced civilians over the officially closed but porous border with Kenya.

Most of them pour straight into Dadaab refuge camp, which was built in the 1990s for a capacity of 90,000 but now shelters 280,000.

Waiting to be registered outside an office of the UN’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), 56-year-old Fatima Mohamed Ali is one of the latest arrivals.

She is exhausted by the journey and still haunted by images of the weakest among her fleeing compatriots, who were too weak to walk and died on the roadside before being devoured by wild animals.

"For 10 days we were stuck inside the house in Mogadishu. It was impossible to get out, there was fighting all around us. On the 11th day, it was quiet and we decided it was time to go," Fatima recounted.

According to the United Nations, more than 120,000 people have been displaced by the six-week-old battle in Mogadishu and central Somalia that started when insurgents launched an offensive to topple the government.

Officials register an average 500 new refugees each day. New arrivals have swollen the camp’s population by 35,000 people or 18 percent in the first half of this year.

Aid and rights agencies said the new influx made it all the more urgent for Kenya to address the long-standing demand for Dadaab to be expanded or new plots of land to be allocated near the border.

"Since August last year we have not been in a position to give land," said Andy Needham, a UNHCR spokesman.

"Currently new refugees move in with relatives," said Dadaab camp chief Anne Campbell said.

Plots measuring 180 square metres (215 square yards) at times shelter up to 40 people.

Rights group backed the drive to decongest Dadaab.

"We urge the government to move quickly on the UN request," said Amnesty International secretary general Irene Khan, who brought up the issue with Kenyan Internal Security Minister George Saitoti earlier this month.

"The minister was fairly optimistic that a solution would be found, but we said he should make sure it (land) is urgently provided," Khan told AFP.

Human Rights Watch refugees expert Gerry Simpson said: "The refugee crisis worsens with every day of delay. Continued paralysis and unresponsiveness puts the well-being of all refugees — new and old – at grave risk."

For nearly two decades, Somalia has had no effective central authority and been embroiled in a bloody power struggle that has left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead or homeless.

The UNHCR explained that congestion had led to increased hostility from local Kenyan villagers and a slump in the quantity and quality of services the camp could offer to the refugees.

Aid agencies such as the European Commission Humanitarian agency ECHO have stepped in with multi-million dollar projects to upgrade the water supply system and build toilets.

"This is a water system built 19 years ago with facilities for just 90,000 people and today it’s a town of 300,000 people and more are coming," said Yves Horent, a technical expert with ECHO.

"Everything is a problem, food is not enough, water is not enough and even shelter is not enough," said 46-year-old refugee Osman Mohammed Yalahow, building an extension to his tent for 12 children and dependents.

"Even if there is fighting in Somalia, I think life is better there than here, conditions are desperate here," said the former mechanic, as he tied together a makeshift dome-shaped shelter made of twigs and plastic sheeting.

Kenya wants the UNHCR to relocate 50,000 to Kakuma, a camp predominantly hosting refugees from southern Sudan, but officials have said the logistics of such a translocation would be costly.


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