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UN Refugee Agency Seeks to Move Somali Refugees - 2002-06-08

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, is asking the Kenyan government to allow the movement of thousands of Somali refugees to a safer location inside the country. The UNHCR has said about 5,000 Somalis are stranded in Mandera town in northern Kenya, near the border with Somalia.

About 10,000 people fled to Mandera more than a month ago to escape clan fighting in Somalia. Under pressure from Kenyan authorities and Somali clan elders, about half of the refugees since have returned home, but about 5,000 refugees - described by the UNHCR as "vulnerable" - are living in terrible conditions in a ramshackle border zone camp in northern Kenya.

UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski said there were 17 deaths in the camp in the past week. Most of the victims were children. "There are a number of children in the town itself begging, scavenging for food. Also women going a fairly far distance to get firewood, being essentially exposed to possible abuse. So, we are insisting still with the Kenyan authorities of moving these people deeper inside the country. So far, permission to do so has not been given to us by the Kenyan authorities," Mr. Janowski said.

Mr. Janowski said the Kenyan government has given no reason for refusing to allow the relocation of the refugees. He said Kenya already is hosting some 250,000 refugees, more than half of them from Somalia. He said the UNHCR suspects Kenya wants the international community to know that it is not getting enough support to cope with this huge refugee load.

"We understand their concerns. They are hosting a lot of refugees. They have been hosting them often for decades and these programs have been very often under-funded and basically struggling through. Nonetheless, this is a quite, quite dramatic situation," Mr. Janowski said.

Mr. Janowski said the refugee convention of the Organization of African Unity explicitly states that people should be moved away from borders of countries at war.

He said the situation along the Kenyan-Somalian border has calmed down over the past few days, with no gunfire reported in the area. However, he said fighting could erupt again at any time, exposing the Mandera refugees to renewed dangers.