Critics Decry Bid to Stem Somalis' Flight Into Kenya

FROM the air this arid village in northeastern Kenya looks like a giant campground, crammed with tiny igloo-shaped hovels. But on the ground conditions are grim:

* An estimated 55,000 Somali refugees live in dilapidated twig and burlap huts.

* Malnutrition is running over 50 percent among young children.

* An estimated 2,000 to 4,000 people have died here since May. About 30 Somalis die each day.

"You see by the life we have here it is very terrible," says Faduma Abid Beshir, one of the refugees. The head of the family, Abdi Beshir Noor, adds: "Five of my children have died in this camp because of hunger."

The plight of about 75,000 Somalis in Mandera and nearby El Wak along the Kenya-Somalia border raises a basic issue regarding the world's more than 17 million refugees and 20 million internally displaced persons: How do governments and international organizations help refugees without exacerbating conditions by attracting even more displaced people?

Several international relief and refugee organizations blame representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kenya and the Kenyan government for failing to respond to the Somalis in Mandera and El Wak.

Allistar Scott Villars, a UNICEF official in Kenya, decries what he terms "a master plan by the UNHCR to discourage refugees in Kenya. You can't deny people services - which was the case."

In a report still in progress, the private United States Committee on Refugees criticizes the UNHCR and the Kenyan government for failing to provide adequate help in the form of tents, blankets, water, cooking utensils, and regular food distribution to the Somalis who have been in Mandera and El Wak since May.

The international group Doctors Without Borders also charges that the UNHCR has discouraged private relief agencies from offering help to the refugees.

"The UNHCR has deliberately pushed other relief organizations out of El Wak and Mandera, and denied services so they'll go home," says Mario Goethals, the Kenya-based medical officer for the Belgium branch of Doctors Without Borders.

Senior UNHCR and Kenyan officials acknowledge that they have been reluctant until now to provide more help to the Somalis for fear of attracting more refugees.

"We're afraid something massive and visible in terms of aid would act as a lighthouse" for many more refugees, says Carrol Faubert, a UNHCR representative in Kenya.

But Dr. Goethals counters that the number of Somalis in the camps has continued to climb even without large-scale relief attention.

"I think it was a misjudgment," says Panos Moumtzis, UNHCR spokesman in Kenya. "That policy of limited aid would have been perfect if you'd had close monitoring of nutrition," he says.

There are roughly 320,000 Somali refugees in Kenya, the majority of whom receive food, housing, and medical care in camps along the central coast, according to the US Committee on Refugees.

BUT the Kenyan government and the UNHCR appear to have drawn a line at Mandera and El Wak in an effort stem the flow of Somalis. The 75,000 refugees in Mandera and El Wak have received far less attention. They are relative latecomers, fleeing war in Somalia since April.

"Food began arriving more than a month later, and only in small amounts," says Maik Schmidt, an official in Mandera for the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC). "In eleven weeks, [the refugees] here got rations for one week. Nobody wanted these refugees here - not Kenya, not UNHCR. UNHCR was here, but they didn't do enough."

Publicly, Kenyan officials say they have not tried to block the flow of Somali refugees. But privately, one senior Kenyan official says the government is concerned not only that establishing more camps will encourage more refugees, but is also worried about rising incidents of armed violence involving Somalis along the border, the official added.

Kenya is not the only country concerned about attracting more refugees, says Nicholas van Hear, a researcher at the Refugee Studies Program at the University of Oxford in England.

Turkey has offered only minimal help to Kurdish refugees from Iraq, except in the rugged mountain areas along the border. Austria has offered to set up camps for those fleeing violence in the former Yugoslavia, but only in the northern part of the former federation. And the US is trying to block would-be Haitian refugees, Mr. van Hear points out.

A UNHCR official in Kenya says the UN branch has deliberately not set up refugee camps in Ivory Coast for Liberian refugees displaced by war in that West African country. The official also said that UNHCR efforts for the Kurdish are aimed primarily at helping them stay in northern Iraq.

UNHCR Sadako Ogata has asked UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali for an expanded mandate to help displaced people in their own countries, before they become refugees. The UN agency is under pressure from Western donor nations to "take a low profile" whenever possible to avoid big, costly refugee camps, says UNHCR spokesman Moumtziz.

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