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Refugee crisis festers as more flee

[Kenya] Somali refugees wait at a food distribution centre at Ifo camp in the Dadaab area of eastern Kenya, 16 September 2006.
Women and children have been most vulnerable to civil strife in Somalia (John Nyaga/IRIN)

Asha Muhammed Nur, a 55-year-old grandmother, who arrived in Kenya recently after fleeing violence in Somalia, wept when asked if she thought of going home to Mogadishu, the capital.

"I do not even want to hear the word Mogadishu," said Nur, recalling the day in April when a group of armed men came to her neighbourhood and stabbed four men to death with a knife, including her son-in-law and a nephew.

At least 22,000 Somali refugees have arrived in Kenya since the beginning of this year to join 130,000 others others who have lived in refugee camps in the remote, arid Dadaab area in the country's Northeastern Province since 1991. Although most of the new arrivals early this year fled because of food shortages after the drought, people also sought to escape the warfare that engulfed Mogadishu from February to June as the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) fought and eventually dislodged an alliance of warlords from the city.

Mogadishu has been calm since early June but the flow of people from Somalia, many from Mogadishu, the volatile coastal town of Kismayo, and Baidoa, seat of the country's transitional government, has continued, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

"The rise in the number of Somalis escaping to Kenya, up from about 100 a day a month ago, has us worried that an outbreak of violence in Kismayo could trigger even more outflows," Ron Redmond, UNHCR's spokesman, said in Geneva.

Some 360 Somali refugees crossed the border into Kenya on Friday alone. About 300 people arrived daily during the previous 72 hours, according to the agency.

Losing hope

The head of UNHCR's sub-office in Dadaab, Nemia Temporal, said the latest flight of people from Somalia, amid fears that another round of factional bloodletting was imminent, was making refugees who have lived in the camps for 15 years lose hope of ever returning home.

"I think the main challenge right now is people are losing hope that they will be able to return to Somalia. Until the time that peace is going to reign in Somalia, their hopes for the time being are gone," she told IRIN on Saturday.

"Before the most recent wave of fighting started, people had high hopes of going back, but now it is like there is no solution to their problems here in Dadaab," she added.

Marjon Kamara, the director of UNHCR's regional bureau for Africa, who visited Dadaab on Saturday, described as "depressing" the conditions that continued to force people to flee Somalia.

"The situation is very discouraging," Kamara said. "I was in Dadaab in 1991 when the camp had just been set up in the wake of an emergency and I come back 15 years later and it is still there. I think it presents a real challenge to that aspect of our work, that part of our mandate, which requires us to search for durable solutions. We do it, but a lot of it depends on political factors beyond our control. This [Somalia] is a case that seems to defy a solution."

[Kenya] A child walks next to a site where Somali refugees, who arrived in Kenya in 2006 are sheltering near Ifo camp, 16 September 2006.

John Nyaga/IRIN
[Kenya] A child walks next to a site where Somali refugees, who arrived in Kenya in 2006 are sheltering near Ifo camp, 16 September 2006.
Monday, September 18, 2006
[Kenya] A child walks next to a site where Somali refugees, who arrived in Kenya in 2006 are sheltering near Ifo camp, 16 September 2006.

A boy at a site where Somali refugees, who arrived in Kenya in 2006, are sheltering near Ifo Camp.

Dire situation

Temporal said the plight of Somali refugees in Kenya was particularly dire because they had no alternative but to live in camps where freedom of movement was curtailed and opportunities to pursue other means of livelihood almost non-existent. Kenya's policy on refugees requires that they be confined to camps, the two main ones situated in the remote, sparsely populated northwestern and northeastern regions.

"The refugees cannot move freely; they have to get passes before they can get out of the camps and so they cannot even find means to support themselves," Temporal said. "They are just dependent on assistance and I think because many of them have been here since 1991, some are very worried that all this time they have not used their skills and they have just been dependent on the international community."

She said UNHCR was trying to initiate projects to impart skills that the refugees, especially the youth, could use in future, but financial constraints were hindering the programme.

"The kind of funding we have is not sufficient to be able to even give the minimum requirement for the basic survival needs like shelter, water and sanitation, let alone the developmental programmes that we are talking about," she said.

Aid donors should consider funding training programmes for refugees, she said, and volunteers experienced in working with the youth could also help train them in the camps in various skills.

Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991 when the government headed by the late Muhammad Siyad Barre was toppled. The country then plunged into anarchy as various clan-based warlords fought for power and resources.

The Transitional Federal Government (TFG), set up in 2004 after reconciliation talks in Kenya, has been unable to exert its authority in the country, largely due to internal wrangles. The UIC has been spreading its authority in the southern and some parts of central Somalia since seizing control of Mogadishu in June, further undermining the credibility of transitional government.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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