Staggering malnutrition rates as quarter of Somalia population uprooted

Briefing Notes, 5 July 2011

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 5 July 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The massive influx of Somali refugees into neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia continues unabated. Relentless violence compounded by devastating drought has forced more than 135,000 Somalis to flee so far this year. In June alone, 54,000 people fled across the two borders, three times the number of people who fled in May.

We estimate a quarter of Somalia's 7.5 million population is now either internally displaced or living outside the country as refugees. The drought is compounded by prevailing violence in southern and central parts of the country.

UNHCR is particularly disturbed by unprecedented levels of malnutrition among the new arrivals especially among refugee children. More than 50 per cent of Somali children arriving in Ethiopia are seriously malnourished, while among those arriving to Kenya that rate is somewhat lower, but equally worrying between 30 to 40 per cent.

"Knowing that children are dying along their journey to safety breaks our hearts." UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres said. "This is turning one of the world's worst humanitarian crises into a human tragedy of unimaginable proportions."

Prevailing violent conflict inside Somalia makes it difficult if not impossible for aid agencies to reach these people with assistance. Many families tell us they exhausted virtually all of their resources. Facing starvation, they walk for days, several weeks at times, through the desert, arriving in an appalling state of health.

Increasingly, we are hearing reports of children below the age of five dying of hunger and exhaustion during the journey. Tragically, many children are in such weak conditions when they finally arrive that they die within 24 hours despite the emergency care and therapeutic feeding they immediately receive.

In Dadaab refugee camp complex in Kenya, where refugees arrive at a rate of 1,400 per day, UNHCR and its partners are distributing high energy biscuits for instant calories and micronutrients. These are life-saving interventions. In addition to malnutrition, overcrowding of the camps, which already host more than 382,000 people, is a major concern.

In Ethiopia, refugees are registered at the border by authorities before being transferred to a UNHCR transit centre where they receive hot meals and go through health and nutrition screening. UNHCR recently opened a new camp at Kobe, the third in South-East Ethiopia, which is quickly reaching its capacity of 20,000.Together with Ethiopian authorities and in anticipation of a continued influx, we have identified a fourth site and discussions are underway about the location of the fifth camp.

As part of UNHCR response, a UNHCR-chartered Boeing 747 cargo plane is scheduled to land in Addis Ababa later today, delivering 100 tonnes of relief items from our emergency stockpile in Dubai. A land convoy of some 20 trucks loaded with thousands of tents and other aid left from Djibouti yesterday afternoon and is expected to reach the Ethiopian capital on Thursday. The High Commissioner is scheduled to visit the border areas with Somalia of Ethiopia and Kenya as well as the refugee camps later this week.

A UNHCR appeal covering the needs of protection, food, shelter, health services and other life-saving aid supplies is about to be issued. The needs are urgent and massive. In the light of the urgency of the situation, UNHCR not only calls on governments but also on individual donors and the private sector to urgently support our life-saving operations in Ethiopia and Kenya. To donate, please go to the UNHCR website: http://www.unhcr.org/emergency/somalia/.

There are now more than 750,000 Somali refugees living in the region, mostly in neighbouring Kenya (405,000), Yemen (187,000) and Ethiopia (110,000). Another 1.46 million are displaced within Somalia.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Nairobi, Kenya: Emmanuel Nyabera, on mobile +254 733 99 59 75
  • In Ethiopia: Kisut Gebre Egziabher, on mobile +25 19 11 20 89 01
  • In Geneva: Andrej Mahecic, on mobile +41 79 200 76 17
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UNHCR country pages

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Bonga camp is located in the troubled Gambella region of western Ethiopia. But it remains untouched by the ethnic conflicts that have torn nearby Gambella town and Fugnido camp in the last year.

For Bonga's 17,000 Sudanese refugees, life goes on despite rumblings in the region. Refugee children continue with school and play while their parents make ends meet by supplementing UNHCR assistance with self-reliance projects.

Cultural life is not forgotten, with tribal ceremonies by the Uduk majority. Other ethnic communities – Shuluks, Nubas and Equatorians – are welcome too, judging by how well hundreds of newcomers have settled in after their transfer from Fugnido camp in late 2002.

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Somalia/Ethiopia

In February 2005, one of the last groups of Somalilander refugees to leave Aisha refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia boarded a UNHCR convoy and headed home to Harrirad in North-west Somalia - the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. Two years ago Harrirad was a tiny, sleepy village with only 67 buildings, but today more than 1,000 people live there, nearly all of whom are former refugees rebuilding their lives.

As the refugees flow back into Somalia, UNHCR plans to close Aisha camp by the middle of the year. The few remaining refugees in Aisha - who come from southern Somalia - will most likely be moved to the last eastern camp, Kebribeyah, already home to more than 10,000 refugees who cannot go home to Mogadishu and other areas in southern Somalia because of continuing lawlessness there. So far refugees have been returning to only two areas of the country - Somaliland and Puntland in the north-east.

Somalia/Ethiopia

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