Somalia: A refugee crisis without end

By Isabel Nanton in Dadaab

Posted on June 10, 2011 12:39

Kenya has had enough of the expanding refugee camps, but the ongoing crisis is far from foreign governments’ minds.

A few days before a ship containing 250 unidentified Somali refugees sank off the coast of Italy in early April, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres had asked the international community not to lose focus on Somalia.

But the focus was never really there to lose. Donor agencies and NGOs need more funding and are now struggling with a Kenyan government unenthused about the need to expand the Dadaab refugee camps that have been in place for about 20 years. The crisis has displaced about 1.5 million people and 700,000 Somalis are living in camps.

The 45-degree heat and dust exacerbate chronic upper respiratory tract infections in these refugee camps, but what is worse are the rains. “Then, effectively, the three camps are sitting in a large porcelain bowl,” says Richard Floyer-Acland, manager of the Dadaab sub-office of the UNHCR. Shelters flood, latrines back up and cholera becomes a challenge.

With 15 doctors for a refugee population of 312,584 and growing – up to 700 arrive daily from Somalia’s South-Central Province, fleeing drought and the Al Shabaab rebels – health challenges alone could be overwhelming. Still, longevity has its advantages. The camps were established in the 1990s to house 90,000 people, so partners have had time to fine-tune their logistics.

Benefits devolve in small ways to the hosts, with Kenyans charging rent to refugees that settle outside the camp boundaries. Makeshift shelters have proliferated since 21 January, when the Kenyan government called a halt to the building of a fourth camp. Until the matter can be resolved, the boreholes, latrines, schools and part-built health centre already in place on the 360ha site will not benefit the refugees.

But they just keep coming. Out of the blistering heat, a family of five arrives and registers. Workers scan the fingerprints of each asylum-seeker over the age of four, and the information is then centralised in a database managed in Nairobi. The father had worked for World Vision, one of the many NGOs evicted by Al Shabaab. Issued with a ration card, the family will now go twice a month for food deliveries which include wheat flour, maize meal, pulses, vegetable oil and salt sourced from the US.

Somali businessmen and women make life in the three camps more palatable. Protein needs are bumped up at the Dagahaley camp livestock market where small goats sell for $16, large cows for $200 and an adult camel with formidable teeth for $700. In central Hagadera camp, the ice-maker is busy sawing up blocks of ice for sale to soft-drink vendors. Chairlady Amina directs a women’s group that welcomes new arrivals with “gifts to reduce the stress”, financing these by selling hand-made bubis (Somali fans) and kikois (sarongs).

This article was first pubished in the May 2011 edition of The Africa Report

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