"We're in a crisis right now": World's biggest refugee camp sees alarming spike in child deaths

News Stories, 11 July 2011

DADAAB, Kenya, July 11 (UNHCR) With the worst drought in 60 years gripping huge swathes of east Africa, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres spent Sunday touring this vast refugee complex to see for himself the desperate situation for the thousands of Somalis now arriving here every week.

Accompanied by a large press entourage Guterres visited the component camps of Dadaab, namely Dagahaley, Hagadera and Ifo. He talked to new arrivals, saw the registration, healthcare and food arrangements, and heard directly from humanitarian workers of the grim toll that drought in this region is taking on people newly arriving from Somalia, especially young children.

In a briefing for Guterres and the press, humanitarian workers were blunt in their assessment of the situation. "We're in a crisis right now," said Allison Oman, UNHCR's Senior Regional Nutrition and Food Security Officer. "We need extraordinary measures to help."

The alarm felt at Dadaab relates both to the escalating number of recent arrivals from Somalia, and the high death rates seen among young children in particular. With infants below five years in age, 3.2-fold and 3.8-fold increases in mortality are currently being seen at the Ifo and Hagadera camps compared with the prevailing rates a year ago. At the Dagahaley camp the increase has been six-fold.

I believe Somalia represents the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.

High Commissioner António Guterres

With exhausted families on the cusp of survival when they arrive at Dadaab, camp workers were racing on Sunday to identify those needing most urgent care. All newly arriving refugees are registered and given food, but often people are in so advanced a state of deterioration that it is too late to reverse the decline. Lower respiratory-tract infection claims most lives, followed by malnutrition and diarrhoea.

Guterres heard from a woman who told him her flight from Somalia had involved a walk of weeks, during which three of her children had died. "I became a bit insane after I lost them," the mother Musleema Aden told him. "I lost them at different times on my way."

In recent weeks Dadaab, along with the Dollo Ado camps in neighbouring Ethiopia, has borne the brunt of an epic outflow of people from Somalia stemming from a drought that is being cruelly amplified by conflict. Inside Somalia the effect of crop failures and the near-absence of aid means food prices have quadrupled. UNHCR believes that most people are waiting until the last moment to flee a fact that may account for the exhausted state of many of the new arrivals.

Dadaab, which already housed well over 300,000 people before the crisis, is today seeing its population approaching 400,000. Refugees are spilling out into overflow areas around the main camps, where camp workers struggle to help them.

On Sunday Guterres spoke of the need for humanitarian agencies to help inside Somalia itself where currently their access is severely limited.

"I believe Somalia represents the worst humanitarian disaster in the world," he told journalists. "And that is why we need to do everything we can to make it possible to deliver massive humanitarian assistance inside Somalia."

By Adrian Edwards in Dadaab, Kenya

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Somalia Emergency: Urgent Appeal

Widespread malnutrition among Somali refugees requires immediate action.

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Crisis in Horn of Africa

Tens of thousands of Somalis are fleeing conflict and drought into Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Advocacy

Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

Over the weekend, UNHCR with the help of the US military began an emergency airdrop of some 200 tonnes of relief supplies for thousands of refugees badly hit by massive flooding in the Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya.

In a spectacular sight, 16 tonnes of plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, tents and blankets, were dropped on each run from the C-130 transport plane onto a site cleared of animals and people. Refugees loaded the supplies on trucks to take to the camps.

Dadaab, a three-camp complex hosting some 160,000 refugees, mainly from Somalia, has been cut off from the world for a month by heavy rains that washed away the road connecting the remote camps to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Air transport is the only way to get supplies into the camps.

UNHCR has moved 7,000 refugees from Ifo camp, worst affected by the flooding, to Hagadera camp, some 20 km away. A further 7,000 refugees have been moved to higher ground at a new site, called Ifo 2.

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Flood Airdrop in Kenya

New Arrivals in Yemen

During one six-day period at the end of March, more than 1,100 Somalis and Ethiopians arrived on the shores of Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden on smuggler's boats from Bosaso, Somalia. At least 28 people died during these recent voyages – from asphyxiation, beating or drowning – and many were badly injured by the smugglers. Others suffered skin problems as a result of prolonged contact with sea water, human waste, diesel oil and other chemicals.

During a recent visit to Yemen, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller pledged to further raise the profile of the situation, to appeal for additional funding and international action to help Yemen, and to develop projects that will improve the living conditions and self sufficiency of the refugees in Yemen.

Since January 2006, Yemen has received nearly 30,000 people from Somalia, Ethiopia and other places, while more than 500 people have died during the sea crossing and at least 300 remain missing. UNHCR provides assistance, care and housing to more than 100,000 refugees already in Yemen.

New Arrivals in Yemen

The Gulf of Aden: Sharp Rise in Crossings and Deaths

The number of people arriving on the coast of Yemen after being smuggled across the treacherous Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa has more than doubled this year. So far this year, more than 18,000 people have arrived in Yemen across the Gulf of Aden, and nearly 400 have died attempting the journey.

This surge in arrivals is largely due to the continuing conflict in Somalia and the use of new smuggling routes from Somalia to Yemen and across the Red Sea from Djibouti. Many of the new arrivals also tell of crop losses due to drought, which forced them to leave home. This photo set focuses on those people leaving from Djibouti.

UNHCR has been calling for increased action to save lives in the Gulf of Aden and other waters. We have stepped up our work in Yemen under a US$17 million operation that includes extra staff, provision of additional shelter and assistance, and protection for refugees and internally displaced people.

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