Refugee camps in Kenya brace for some 20,000 Somalis

Threatened by Islamic militant group, Al Shabab, the World Food Program last week decided to pull out of southern Somalia. UN aid agencies in Kenya are planning for an increase of refugees into already-packed refugee camps.

Ismail Taxt/Reuters
Somali women and their children wait to receive food aid at a distribution centre by local NGOs at a camp in southern Mogadishu Jan. 7. The U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP) has suspended its work in much of southern Somalia due to threats against its staff and unacceptable demands by Al Shabab rebels.
Ismail Taxt/Reuters
Somali women receive food aid, a traditional food made from a mixture of maize and sorghum, at a distribution centre run by local NGOs at a camp in southern Mogadishu Jan. 7.

The forcible shutdown of food aid operations in southern Somalia by the Al Qaeda-linked radical Islamist militia, Al Shabab, has aid groups scrambling to accommodate what they expect will soon be a fresh influx of refugees into Somalia’s neighboring countries of Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya.

Last week, the United NationsWorld Food Program (WFP), which feeds some 2.8 million people in Somalia, announced that it would pull out of areas under the control of Al Shabab, after the Islamist militia began making a list of demands, including the removal of female staffers from aid programs and the payment to militia leaders for “security.”

It is still unclear how many of WFP’s beneficiaries will be affected by the aid pullout, but aid agencies in Kenya are already beginning to plan for an increase of refugees into already-packed refugee camps.

“We are bracing ourselves, and looking at how we can cope with the needs of the displaced,” says Yusuf Hassan, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Nairobi, which oversees the three camps on the Kenyan-Somali border in the Kenyan town of Dadaab.

The three camps are already over capacity, Mr. Hassan says, since they were designed for 90,000 residents in 1991, and now have three times that number.

“Any new influx would be a serious crisis, and we would not be able to take any more refugees,” says Hassan.

The UNHCR, which was founded with the purpose of protecting refugees, continues to press Kenya to allow more refugees in and to give more land for refugee camps, but Hassan says that “the Kenyan government is reluctant for security reasons to take any more Somali refugees, or to give us any more land.”

It could take weeks or months before food runs out in refugee camps, and history suggests that Somalis tend to exhaust their own local resources – and those of any expatriate relatives who might be able to send money to Somalia – before leaving the country.

Even so, aid agencies predict that as many as 20,000 refugees from the immediate border districts of southern Somalia may be the first to cross the border into Kenya.

The aid group, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) runs health clinics and a hospital for refugees in Dagahaley camp, one of the three camps in Dadaab. MSF field coordinator Duncan Bell says that adding more people to Dagahaley – a camp with 95,000 refugees – is not possible unless more land is allocated immediately.

"There is no capacity for holding more people, full stop," says Mr. Bell.

As it is, Bell says, camp residents are living on severely limited food supplies.

"They have limited access to drinking water, limited food supplies which include basic food rations, and non-food items such as blankets and soap, they are not getting regularly," says Bell. "They get the basics, but that's not enough."

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