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Food, climate, conflict – all that caused the Horn of Africa refugee crisis

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New arrivals from Somalia waiting to be registered at Dagehaley camp, in Dadaab. Photo: Kate Holt/IRIN

IRIN News has reported that about 1,300 Somalis are arriving at the Dadaab refugee camps in northeast Kenya every day. The help they are seeking – refuge from a severe drought and the effects of years of conflict – is being handed out as fast as possible. But in a camp complex that has already been stretched well beyond its limits, the new arrivals need more assistance than can be provided. The nutritional state of older children, as well as under fives, is of concern, but the local Kenyan population is faring little better.

“The number has skyrocketed,” a registration expert with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, told IRIN. The official said UNHCR had had to hire more employees, who now work in shifts, to accommodate the rush. The three Dadaab refugee camps – Dagahaley, Ifo and Hagadera – were originally meant to cater for 90,000 refugees, but housed at least 380,000 people, according to UNHCR. Despite the overcrowding, the government of Kenya has yet to allow people to move into a fourth camp, known as Ifo II, which stands empty.

“Water systems, latrines and healthcare facilities are ready to use but are standing idle,” Oxfam said in a statement. Oxfam reported that 60,000 new arrivals were living in basic tents outside the camp boundaries, with limited access to clean water or latrines, risking an outbreak of disease. Those living in these informal settlements are some of the worst-off. In the settlements on the outskirts of Dagahaley camp, 17.5 percent of children between six months and almost five years old are severely malnourished, three times the emergency level, according to Caroline Abu-Sada, a research unit coordinator with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Newly arrived Somali refugees waiting to be registered at Dagahaley camp, Dadaab in Kenya. Photo: Al Jazeera/EPA

The lack of water in the outskirts was a real concern. Refugees are only able to obtain up to three litres of water a day, 80 percent less than they need according to the Sphere Standards, which are already based on emergency situations. Some are only receiving 500ml for drinking, bathing, washing clothes, and everything else. By comparison, in North America and Japan most people use 350l a day, according to the World Water Council. Water is now being trucked to the camp outskirts by MSF and CARE, but there were previously only 48 taps for 20,000 people. Abu-Sada said diarrhoea was already rampant, along with skin rashes and respiratory infections.

More than 11 million people are estimated to be in need of humanitarian aid across the region, a UN News report has said. Almost 500,000 children in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya are suffering from imminent, life-threatening severe malnutrition. In addition, over 1.6 million children under the age of five are acutely malnourished, according to UNICEF.

In addition to the thousands of people from Somalia seeking refuge in Ethiopia and Kenya, millions more are living on the brink of extreme poverty and hunger, suffering the consequences of failed rains and the impact of climate change, said the agency. UNICEF has appealed for $31.8 million to ramp up assistance to the Horn of Africa over the next three months, especially for children, who are suffering the brunt of the crisis. It says the most urgent needs include therapeutic feeding, vitamin supplementation, water and sanitation services, child protection measures and immunization.

In Geneva, two UN human rights experts appealed to the global community to take “concerted and urgent” measures to assist the millions who are suffering in the region, warning of large-scale starvation if international intervention is not forthcoming. Shamsul Bari, the Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Somalia, noted that drastically increasing food prices and continuing conflict and insecurity have caused a huge displacement of the population, with thousands of Somalis fleeing to Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti every day. Bari, who last week visited Somalia and Kenya, said the situation was markedly worse than in March, when he had expressed concerns over the slow response of the humanitarian community to the situation.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, said the international community should be prepared for more such droughts. “This crisis looks like a natural calamity, but it is in part manufactured,” De Schutter said, adding that climate change will result in such events being more frequent. He called for, among other measures, emergency food reserves in strategic positions, and better preparedness for drought, for which Governments must be held to account.

“With a rate of child malnutrition above 30 per cent in many regions of these countries, the failure of the international community to act would result in major violations of the right to food,” De Schutter said. “International law imposes on States in a position to help that they do so immediately, where lives are at stake.”

Shokuri Abdullai like most mothers in Bisle feeds her family boiled maize in the Somali region's Shinile zone (Ethiopia). Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN

Al Jazeera has reported that Kenya has agreed to open a new camp near its Somalia border to cope with the influx of refugees fleeing the region’s worst drought in 60 years. The lfo II camp in Dabaab will open its doors to 80,000 refugees within 10 days, the Kenyan government said. Prime Minister Raila Odinga agreed to the opening to the new camp, after visiting Dadaab’s three existing camps where an estimated 380,000 refugees are now living at facilities intended to cope with a population of 90,000 people.

A spokesman for the charity Save the Children, said “more children have died in Dadaab in the first four months of the year than all of last year”. Many Somali refugees at the camp have travelled through harsh conditions with little food or water, and no humanitarian assistance, often abandoning members of their family who have died or are so weak to travel. Al Jazeera’s Azad Essa, who reported from the Dabaab camp, said, “Over the past month, around 20,000 have made their way to Dadaab, many of them through similar means”.

Dadaab’s existing camps were set up in 1991 to host refugees fleeing war in Somalia. Between 40,000 and 60,000 are thought to be living outside the boundaries of the complex – existing as refugees beyond the current scope and control of the UN. Somalis have been fleeing from war for years now, but the drought, affecting 12 million people across the Horn of Africa, has brought the threat of a new humanitarian catastrophe to the region, with many people also seeking refuge in Ethiopia. Al Jazeera has more on the refugee crisis in the Horn of Africa here.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs  (OCHA) has provided a ‘snapshot’ of the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa country:
* 2.85 million Somalis require urgent aid – that’s one in three people
* At least one in three children are malnourished in parts of southern Somalia
* More than 460 Somali children have died in nutrition centres in Somalia between January and May this year
* Malnutrition rates among new arrivals in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya range between 30 and 40 percent
* As of late June, 60,200 Somalis were registered in Kenya this year — a more than 100 percent increase compared with the same period last year
* Life expectancy is 50.4 years, according to the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP)
* Women dying in childbirth: 1,000 per 100,000 live births reported, according to UNICEF
* One in 10 Somali children dies before their first birthday
* Primary school enrolment rate is 23 percent
* Average HIV prevalence level estimated at 0.5 percent of the population aged 15 to 49
* Percentage of people with access to safe, clean water: 29 percent

(Sources: OCHA, UNICEF, UNDP)

It is not just Somalis who are suffering, Euronews has reported. Famine is affecting all countries in the Horn of Africa. Now 11 million people need help to survive the food shortages. In Habaswein in the far north of Kenya there has been no rain for a year. Many animals have died. Others have been taken further north in search of water. Only women, children and the elderly remain in the village.

Like many others, Fatuma Ahmed depends on rations of maize, beans and oil provided by aid agencies and the government. She said: “I have no husband. I’m raising my children alone. We had some animals but they’ve all died. Now we’re depending on aid from charities. What I’m cooking now is the only meal my family will eat today.” In the village of Fini, farmers try to move a dying cow into the shade. The animal will only last a few days. This is not the first time this area has been hit by drought, but according to villagers like Mori Omar, it has never been this bad.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this. I’m 56 years old, but I look more like 80 because of many years of not having enough food. During the droughts, there’s no meat or milk,” she said. There is a growing consensus that climate change is to blame for the driest period in 60 years. The UN says droughts are becoming more frequent – before they used to be every five or 10 years, now it is every two.

IRIN News has a report, ‘Somalis living from drought to drought’, on the perilous state of food availability in Bisle, the Somali region. Every day, 500g of boiled wheat is divided up between two adults, four children, a calf, a goat and a donkey in the Farah household. It is the only food they have had after rains failed for the past two seasons. The 15kg sack of wheat is provided to about 1,200 people in the Bisle area, which has four settlements, under the government-run Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) as payment for work, such as digging water holes.

“It is boiled wheat for breakfast and for the main meal – we don’t have anything else – no milk, no meat, no vegetables, no oil,” says Maria Farah, the mother. Not surprisingly, two of her children are severely malnourished. The calf and goat that share their “ari” – a collapsible egg-shaped hut made of sticks and covered with sheeting – are emaciated. It is too hot for them outside, in temperatures that soar beyond 40 degrees Celsius. There is no water in their settlement, about 54km north of Dire Dawa town in the Somali region, one of the worst hit by drought in Ethiopia. More than a million people have been affected.

One Response

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  1. Excellent article, disaster induced displacement is complicated problem

    So-called environmentally induced migration is multi-level problem. According to Essam El-Hinnawi definition form 1985 environmental refugees as those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life. The fundamental distinction between `environmental migrants` and `environmental refugees` is a standpoint of contemporsry studies in EDPs.

    According to Bogumil Terminski it seems reasonable to distinguish the general category of environmental migrants from the more specific (subordinate to it) category of environmental refugees.

    Environmental migrants, therefore, are persons making a short-lived, cyclical, or longerterm change of residence, of a voluntary or forced character, due to specific environmental factors. Environmental refugees form a specific type of environmental migrant.

    Environmental refugees, therefore, are persons compelled to spontaneous, short-lived, cyclical, or longer-term changes of residence due to sudden or gradually worsening changes in environmental factors important to their living, which may be of either a short-term or an irreversible character.

    Susanne Garcia

    January 11, 2012 at 07:18


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