NAIROBI, 19 June 2009 (IRIN) – Ever-worsening security in Somalia is prompting large numbers of civilians to flee into Kenya, where facilities to host them are stretched to bursting point, raising fears of a major refugee crisis.
Dadaab in eastern Kenya, is home to an estimated 279,000 mainly Somali refugees – triple its designated capacity. Its Dagahaley, Hagadera and Ifo camps together comprise the largest refugee site in the world.
Kenya’s closure of its Somali border in January 2007 did little to stem the tide. “On average, about 7,000 Somali refugees are coming into the country every month this year,” Kellie Leeson, International Rescue Committee (IRC) country director for Kenya, told IRIN.
“We need more land for Dadaab to spread the camp out so that people can live in dignity,” she said. The UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR) is talking with the Kenyan government in an effort to obtain more land.
IRC is providing healthcare services in Dadaab as well as water and sanitation services in Kakuma camp, northwestern Kenya.
“The high [refugee] population has made it extremely challenging to deliver services,” Leeson said. “Water has been a really big challenge as well as provision of adequate latrines.”
“The overcrowding [in Dadaab] means that international standards for basic services are not being met,” according to Refugees International.
“There is a shortfall of 36,000 latrines and 50 percent of the refugees have access to less than 13 litres of water per day,” the NGO said in recent special report on Somali refugees.
The agency went on to appeal for the reopening of a reception centre for Somali refugees shut by the Kenyan authorities in May 2008. “This will ensure an orderly and humane screening and registration process, while having the added benefit for the Kenyan government of reducing cross-border security threats.”
On this point Leeson said: “Health screening at a border reception centre is needed in order to prevent the spread of disease inside the congested camps.”
In March, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that Kenya was in the midst of a rapidly escalating refugee crisis.
Between August 2008 and the end of February 2009, “just over 35,000 new arrivals [in Dadaab] received no shelter and have been forced to sleep under open skies in makeshift shelters that provide little protection from the harsh weather, or in cramped confines with relatives or strangers who were already living in conditions well below minimum humanitarian standards,” HRW said.
Relations with the surrounding Kenyan population have also at times soured. “The host community is struggling especially with the high food prices and drought,” Leeson said. IRC, along with UNHCR, and other partners, is working with local community leaders in an effort to prevent conflict in Dadaab and Kakuma.
The local community neighbouring Dadaab has in the past resisted the expansion of the camp boundaries, saying it is already encroaching on their land.
In Kakuma, most of the refugees are of Somali origin, coming either via Dadaab or Nairobi. Its population has almost halved since 2006 due to the large scale repatriation of its Sudanese population in the wake of a 2005 peace accord.
“Now there are about 42,000 refugees remaining in the camp, who can’t yet return home, and are fully dependent on [external support],” she said.
“A lot of people thought Kakuma would just go [away],” she said, “But the numbers of refugees are still high and we must meet their urgent needs.”
A statement by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) said: “Ten percent of the refugees in Kakuma have lived in the camp for over 10 years, some longer than 15 with no perspective and no hope of a durable solution. This causes dependency and problems with the local community.”
According to JRS, societies and governments tend to perceive refugees as a problem. “But, we need to see that behind the large numbers are human beings like you and me. They have been uprooted from their countries by conflict, persecution or violence,” said Frido Pflueger, JRS/Eastern Africa director.
IRC’s Leeson urged the Kenyan government to also fully implement its own Refugees’ Act of 2006. “On paper, the act gives rights to refugees, but in practice it is not yet fully enforced and many people in positions of authority aren’t aware of its content or the rights it confers,” she said. “We also urgently need extended funds as the [refugee] population continues to grow,” she said.
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