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After Long Trek, Somali Refugees Face More Hardship in Camps

A Somali woman stands in front of Somalis queuing outside the reception center in Ifo refugee camp, one of three camps in Kenya's Dadaab refugee complex on July 25, 2011

With millions being affected by the ongoing famine and instability in Somalia, the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya are seen by many desperate Somalis as a safe haven. But for some, the journey to Dadaab has only brought more hardship.

An estimated 1,300 Somalis are crossing into Kenya every single day in search of salvation from the ongoing suffering at home in Somalia. Word of sanctuary at Dadaab has spread across much of the country, prompting many to risk the long journey - often on foot - in hopes of a better life.

Famine in Somalia

Many do not survive the journey, which can take more than a month. But those who do survive often find respite in the form of plentiful food, water and shelter provided by the humanitarian agencies operating in the camps.

For some, however, salvation is not so quick in coming. The massive influx of refugees over recent months has inundated the camps, straining the resources of those agencies trying to help. When refugees first arrive in Dadaab, they are provided with an initial food ration meant to last until they are officially registered and receive ration cards.

But with so many refugees arriving every day, registration can take too long, leaving people to fend for themselves while awaiting the precious designation of registered refugee.

Nurta Heirat left Baidoa with her two children in June to escape the oppression of the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab. The family walked for 20 days to reach Dadaab, where they received their initial rations. But now, after more than two weeks in the camps, their food has run out.

Nurta returns to the UNHCR registration center in the Dagahaley camp each day in the hope of receiving her ration card but has so far had no luck.

Heirat and her children do not yet have a tent to sleep in. It was only through chance that she found her cousin Abdirashid Hajj at the camp, who has provided them with some support during the past week.

Newly arrived Somali refugees queue for relief food at the Dadaab refugee camp, near the Kenya-Somalia, July 23, 2011
Newly arrived Somali refugees queue for relief food at the Dadaab refugee camp, near the Kenya-Somalia, July 23, 2011

Nurta's story is unfortunately common. The massive human pressure created by the recent Somali exodus has distribution systems at a breaking point, something humanitarian organizations are trying to address.

Rose Ogola, a spokesperson for the World Food Program at Dadaab, says "Initially when we started giving food here at the reception centers, we started by giving a 15-day ration in the hope that these people - within those 15 days - will have been registered and we can put them in the general manifest. However, because of the large influx, we realized this was not working. So since the 15th of July we changed that strategy and instead of a 15-day ration we are now giving a 21-day ration."

With refugees continuing to stream into Dadaab, it is likely the 21 days will not be enough. Some arrivals have reported waiting for up to 40 days for ration cards, leaving them helpless in the interim.

And challenges also exist once refugees are settled within the camps. Yusuf Ali and Fatumah Muhamud came from Somalia in 2008 to escape the fighting in their area. They were initially settled in the Dagahaley camp and had little problem until their 15-year-old daughter was raped. The parents reported the crime to UNHCR, who promptly arrested and jailed the man responsible.

But relatives of the attacker began to cause problems for Ali and Muhamud, demanding that they leave Dagahaley, and even attempting to kidnap their daughter. Recently, Ali and Muhamud moved their family out of Dagahaley for fear of continued reprisals from the family of the attacker. They have since been sleeping near the Dagahaley registration center in the hope of being moved to another camp or another area of Kenya.

Though refugees throughout the camps in Dadaab do find refuge from the numerous problems of Somalia, for many the hardships of the journey and the challenge of rebuilding their lives prove too costly.

Janet Ndoti-Ndila, who works for Care International as the lead psychological counselor in Dagahaley, says some of those she speaks with actually regret their decision to leave.

"Especially on the way sometimes they lose property. So that is one of the things that will make them say, 'I should not have come," she said. "We've lost property, I've lost my cattle, I've lost my gold. I have nothing.'"

UN World Food Program Executive Director Josette Sheeran meets newly arrived Somali refugees at the Dadaab refugee camp, near the Kenya-Somalia, July 23, 2011
UN World Food Program Executive Director Josette Sheeran meets newly arrived Somali refugees at the Dadaab refugee camp, near the Kenya-Somalia, July 23, 2011

Aid groups including Care, the World Food Program and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, are scrambling to meet the needs of Dadaab's mushrooming population, but the resources available are simply not enough. Around one half of the estimated $2 billion needed to address the east African crisis has been delivered thus far.

Shortages of critical items such as tents mean refugees receive only plastic sheets for constructing shelter on the outskirts of the camps. With humanitarian resources strained to the limit, many refugees will simply have to wait for the reprieve they have traveled hundreds of miles to find.