News / Africa

Refugee Camp in Kenya Swells to Crisis Point

A Somali refugee woman stands with her children outside their makeshift shelter at the Dagahaley camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, (File)
A Somali refugee woman stands with her children outside their makeshift shelter at the Dagahaley camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, (File)

In Kenya, the world's largest refugee camp, Dadaab, gets bigger all the time as Somalis fleeing warfare in their country stream across the border.  The camp now houses several times the number of people it was designed to hold. The Kenyan government was supposed to open a new camp, but has not done so.  

Up to 10,000 people each month appear at the gates of Dadaab refugee camp in dry, dusty northeastern Kenya, fleeing the misery of war-torn Somalia.

When Dadaab opened two decades ago, a family of five lived on a plot of land that was about the same area as a small house.

The U.N. refugee agency's head of the Dadaab office, Richard Acland, says times have drastically changed. "Since August 2008, we had to put second families in each of those and now third families and now we are at the state where we have got about over 42,000 of the new arrivals who are actually outside the camp boundaries because we cannot fit them inside," he said.

The settlement was built to accommodate 90,000 people.  The population now stands at 352,000 and rising.

The U.N. refugee agency coordinates the work of 22 aid groups that distribute food and other supplies inside the camp and implement services such as education and health care.  The Kenyan government provides the land on which these aid efforts take place.

Acland says although the amount of food donations is still adequate, other facilities such as clinics, latrines and wells cannot continue to be built because there is no more room.

"We are supposed to be able to produce 20 liters (of water) per person per day.  We are restricted on the amount of boreholes we can sink and the number of hours we are allowed to pump per day by the government environmental agency.  And that means it is very difficult to produce that amount, and a lack of clean water also helps the spread of disease," said Acland.

To ease pressure on the local community, the U.N. refugee agency negotiated with the local community, elected leaders, the provincial administration, and the area's parliament member to acquire more land for another camp, which was granted in December 2009.

Construction of Ifo II camp began shortly after.  It was designed to house 80,000 refugees at a cost of around $60 million and was to have opened in November 2010.  But the new camp, which has clinics, schools, water and sanitation facilities, sits empty.

Kenya Department of Refugee Affairs acting senior assistant commissioner Omar Dhadho tells VOA the Kenyan government did not give its official approval, in his words, "at the highest level."

"The government wanted to have consultations first.  Are there other solutions to the problem of refugees in Kenya apart from building camps?  Because even the host community there has become very hostile," explained Dhadho.  

Dhadho says one solution might be to build camps within Somalia.

"If there are areas that are peaceful and the international community can be guaranteed some room for them to operate, then it is wise also to, instead of the whole population coming to Kenya, we need to start some programs in Somalia that can minimize the number who are flocking in the country," said Dhadho.

The U.N. refugee agency's Acland rejects that suggestion.  He says under international law, Somali refugees have the right to claim asylum in Kenya, and that there is no guarantee of safety anywhere in Somalia, especially when the militant group al-Shabab is active.

But Dhadho says he thinks it is unfair that Kenya should continue to shoulder the burden of the increasing refugee population. "As a country, we have hosted enough - we have enough refugees in the country.  So the other countries must also come in to assist," he said.

Somalia has been at war since 1991, with the ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.  Recent fighting between al-Shabab and pro-Somali government forces have increased refugee movements and suffering.

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