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UNHCR Concerned About Somali Refugees in Kenya - 2002-06-11

The UN refugee agency says it is worried by the deteriorating condition of about 4,000 Somali refugees in northern Kenya. The agency says children are most at risk.

The UNHCR spokesman in Nairobi, Emmanuel Nyabera, said the flow of refugees out of Somalia into Kenya has not stopped. Six more families arrived Monday in the Kenyan border town of Mandera.

Conditions in Mandera are harsh. The barren, arid landscape can barely support the local population, even without an influx of destitute refugees. There is not enough food and medicine, and the UNHCR spokesman said the situation is only going to get worse.

"There have been severe cases of malnutrition in Mandera, and as much as we have opened feeding centers, we still feel that if nothing is done then the situation will continue to deteriorate," he warned. "Mandera hospital is over-stretched at the moment, coping with the influx from Somalia and also coping with the locals. We are definitely trying to supplement by taking medicine, but the more the refugees stay in Mandera, the more worried we are that the situation could worsen."

Most of the refugees are women and children who fled Somalia in April and May to escape fighting between rival clans.

So far, 17 people have died, mainly from malnutrition, diarrhea, or malaria. Mr. Nyabera said it is the children who are most vulnerable. "For example, we have opened a therapeutic feeding center in Mandera. As of Monday, there were 193 children admitted at the center. We are trying to extend it," he said. "So as you can see, the number of children at the center continues to grow, and mainly because of malnutrition."

The UNHCR is negotiating with the Kenyan government to allow the refugees to be transferred further inside the country. The refugees now are camped just 500 meters from the Somali border, and the agency fears they could be hurt if fighting flares up again.

Last month, four refugees were killed and five were wounded by stray bullets from across the border.