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Thousands of Somalis Illegally Cross into Kenya

As the humanitarian crisis in Somalia worsens, the influx of Somali refugees into Kenya has grown sharply. This, despite Kenya's closing its borders early last year. Human Rights Watch is calling on the Kenyan government, UN agencies and foreign donors to take action to help the refugees.

Gerry Simpson is with Human Rights Watch. From Geneva, he spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about the status of Somali refugees in Kenya.

"There are a number of problems for Somali refugees in Kenya at the moment and the numbers are one part of that. In 2008 alone, about 65,000 Somalis will have entered the three refugee camps in the northeast of Dadaab. That is more than triple the number that came in 2006 and 2007 in each of those years. And it is the largest influx of Somalis since the war began in Somalia in 1991," he says.

Simpson says that the main problem the refuges are facing is a lack of available land at the camps. "The camps were officially declared full in August this year. Even before that they were overflowing. And so since that time, new arrivals have received no shelter and no land on which to build any shelter they might buy for themselves. And so now as a consequence the camps are completely overflowing. The United Nations is trying to negotiate for extra land for a fourth camp, but has come to this negotiation table far too late in the day and the local host community now is blocking negotiations, asking to be far more involved in aid agencies' work in the camp," he says.

It could be mid-2009 before more land may become available for another Somali refugee camp in Kenya. "By that time there will be about 275,000 refugees living on land originally designed for 90,000 people," Simpson says.

The influx of Somalis into Kenya came despite Kenya's ordering the border closed in January 2007 due to the growing conflict in Somalia. Simpson says, "The closure has not come without a cost to refugees. Because the border is closed, the Somali refugees have to pay people smugglers, who take them across the border in order to avoid corrupt Kenyan police, who, if they catch the refugees, detain them, demand bribes from them. And we have testimony from refugees, who say that they have been detained in police stations inside the camps and in towns around the camps, where they were beaten and held in appalling conditions, and deported back to Somalia when they were not able to pay bribes."

When the border between Kenya and Somalia was closed, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, was no longer able to register Somali refugees to ensure they received food aid and were safely transported to the camps. The refugees also received health screenings.

Human Rights Watch is calling on Kenya to immediately reopen the border, saying it violates international law to close it under current humanitarian conditions. It also wants UN officials to take over negotiations for more land and provide donors with a full assessment of the situation.