A fourth camp for refugees in Dadaab, northeastern Kenya, lies empty, despite an announcement of its imminent opening by Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga on 14 July.
The camp, Ifo II, was meant to decongest the overcrowded three existing camps, struggling to cope with tens of thousands of new arrivals from Somalia.
Instead, the refugees are currently being moved to an extension area, a few hundred metres away from Ifo camp, with the inaccessible Ifo II in plain view.
The Dadaab camps were initially intended to host 90,000 refugees but are now home to 400,000 people. More than 65,000 newly registered Somali refugees are sheltering on the outskirts.
Refugees who settle informally on the outskirts have no proper shelter in a dry, dusty area continuously swept by winds. They have trouble getting enough food and water and have few health facilities. There are no latrines, making open defecation the only option and increasing the spread of diseases. Safety has also been a problem.
Neither the refugees nor the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, is allowed to build any permanent structures on the outskirts of Dadaab, even if they could afford it, because the land belongs to the host community.
UNHCR has begun erecting temporary tents instead to house those who had spontaneously settled on the camp outskirts.
Since 25 July, UNHCR has relocated nearly 2,000 refugees to the new extension site. “We are expecting to relocate 60,000 people and continue doing this until the government releases Ifo II,” said a UNHCR field officer in Dadaab.
But the tents are a poor substitute. Installed in an open field, there are no health facilities, and latrines and water supply are under maintenance.
“We are told to share with 20 people per latrine, which is just 5m deep; it is very difficult to live here,” said Mohamed Hassan Noor, whose family was relocated on 27 July.
Ifo II can accommodate about 80,000 people and has all the basic social amenities, including schools, health facilities, agency buildings and latrines. It also boasts comparatively good shelters - houses made of mud bricks that make the informal settlements on the outskirts look like flotsam.
UNHCR had been urging the Kenyan government to open Ifo II for the past two years but the government has cited security concerns.
When Odinga announced that Ifo II would open, the aid community congratulated Kenya on its hospitality in a time of crisis.
At a Nairobi press conference, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Reuben Brigety II, said he was “enormously heartened” by the announcement.
Brigety said informal settlements indicated an ineffective registration system where camp authorities were unable to keep track of exactly where each refugee was housed - which he deemed a security risk. In this case, he said, “the security considerations and the humanitarian considerations are entirely coincident”.
But Odinga now says the Kenyan cabinet has to discuss the opening of the camp before the new arrivals may officially move in.
“We did not yet receive any written document uplifting the suspension of Ifo II and the same applies to the border,” said a UNHCR representative in Dadaab, who declined to be named. “But we are working on the improvement of the situation of the spontaneous settlements in the outskirts which will include provision of enough tents for shelter, adequate water supply and access to health facilities.”
In April, UNHCR signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Kenyan government in which it would support the government to enable it to patrol the border and secure Dadaab and its surroundings, Elike Segbor, UNHCR country representative, said on 26 July in Nairobi.
"With a refugee population of over 400,000, compared to the host community’s 100,000, only 80km from a border of a country at war, you can imagine there are security concerns," said Segbor.
But the reason the refugees were shifted from one field to another instead of Ifo II was a mystery to the mass of waiting families, who have no idea of what is planned for the camp, or for them.
“I never thought the situation would be worse in Dadaab; we are really desperate, we do not understand why we are not being taken to the new camp,” said Hassan Ali Yarow, 50, whose family arrived seven months ago. “No one bothers to tell us what is actually taking place. We feel abandoned but hope that one day life will be better in Somalia.”
The new arrivals are not the only ones disappointed. Before the massive influx, long-time residents of flood-prone areas also wished to relocate to Ifo II. They did not, however, put up a fight when they learned they would be passed over for space on drier ground.
With the ongoing drought, the crisis of space and services seems much more pressing to everyone in Dadaab.
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