No respite for refugees in East Africa | Africa | DW | 20.07.2012
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Africa

No respite for refugees in East Africa

One year ago, the UN declared a state of famine in southern Somalia. More than 12 million people suffered hunger. Hundreds of thousands fled to neighboring countries such as Kenya. Their situation has not improved.

One year ago the world was shocked by pictures of starving children, their parents either desperate or resigned to their fate. Tens of thousands of Somalis left their homeland in an attempt to flee war and drought.

Muhumed Surow grieves following the burial of his 12-month-old daughter Liin Muhumed Surowlays at UNHCR's Ifo Extention camp outside Dadaab, Eastern Kenya, 100 km (60 miles) from the Somali border, Saturday Aug. 6, 2011. Liin died of malnutrition 25 days after reaching the camp, Mumumed said. The drought and famine in the horn of Africa has killed more than 29,000 children under the age of 5 in the last 90 days in southern Somalia alone, according to U.S. estimates. The U.N. says 640,000 Somali children are acutely malnourished, suggesting the death toll of small children will rise. (ddp images/AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

A father mourns his daughter who died of malnutrition shortly after reaching Dadaab

Their arrival placed an additional burden on the Dadaab camp in northeastern Kenya which was already bursting at the seams.

"Today, one year later, we can say that the situation has improved in some parts of the region. There has been some rainfall and crops have been harvested," Sabine Wilke of the aid organisation Care told DW. That evaluation is confirmed by the representative of the German Red Cross in Kenya, Stephanie Grutza. However, she told DW that the situation remained critical. "In some places conflict has escalated, especially in Somalia and as a result of the tensions between Sudan and South Sudan."

Sabine Wilke puts the number of Somali refugees who arrived in Dadaab last year at more than 130,000. That places a tremendous strain on the camp's resources. In a joint appeal issued to mark the first anniversary of the famine disaster on the Horn of Africa, seven international aid organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and Care, say that unemployment and low levels of education have turned Dadaab into a recruitment camp for robber bands and extremists.

Three women carrying all their possessions on their way to Dadaab

Refugees from Somalia on their way to Dadaab camp

Camp staff at risk

Threats, discrimination and abuse are daily occurrences for many camp inmates. Women and children risk becoming victims of rape when they go out looking for firewood. Health centers are poorly equipped and unable to cope with the numbers flooding in. There are just two in-patient clinics to look after 78,000 people.

The aid organisations are also victims of the disastrous conditions, says Care spokesperson Sabine Wilke. "For helpers, that means we often have to deal with physical attacks and kidnappings but also with attacks involving explosives." In June, armed men kidnapped four international aid workers based in Dadaab. They have now been released but others are being held hostage in Somalia.

Twenty million euros needed

Dadaab holds almost 500,000 people, which means it is not only the largest refugee camp in the world but also that it is fast reaching its limit. Aid organisations say twenty million euros ($24,300,000) are urgently needed in the coming months to buy tents, drinking water and medicine, as well as to build schools. Fewer than one in three of the nearly 170,000 children in the camp go to school.

Dadaab lies about 100 kms (62 miles) from Kenya's border with Somalia. The UN aid agency has run three refugee camps here since the early 1990s. Questions about their future are becoming more urgent, says Sabine Wilke. "We can't provide aid for another 20 years. We don't have the money or the human resources for that." To ease the situation, Care has begun training refugees and involving them in running the camp. "This is a good way of improving security and gives people some self respect and the feeling they can make a useful contribution," Wilke told DW.

A group of women at Dadaab

Women risk being raped when they go out to collect firewood

No end in sight

Dismantling the camp is not a likely prospect, in the view of Stephanie Grutzka. The problem is the overall situation in the region. "The Kenyan government will not forcibly return the refugees, as long as the situation in their home countries does not change for the better. This applies particularly to Somalia and Sudan," says Grutzka.

The international aid agencies see three possible scenarios. One option for the refugees, Wilke says, would be for them to resettle in a different country. Six years ago more than 10,000 Somalis resettled in Tanzania where they were given some land, enabling them to start a new life there as small farmers.

Another option would be for the refugees to become integrated into Kenyan society, or return to a Somalia free of conflict. "But this last possibility which is the one everybody would prefer, is the least likely when we look at reality." Wilke admits.

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