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More Somalis flee to remote Kenya border town over weekend

More Somalis flee to remote Kenya border town over weekend

More Somali refugees flee to the Kenya border town of Mandera over the weekend amid fears of a fresh outbreak of fighting in their home villages
11 June 2002
Somali refugees at a border camp near Mandera.

MANDERA, Kenya, June 11 (UNHCR) - More than 70 Somalis fearing an outbreak of clan fighting fled into the north-eastern Kenya town of Mandera over the weekend amid worsening conditions in the remote border region.

UNHCR staff who visited Border Point 1, a makeshift camp along Kenya's volatile border with Somalia, report that several new tukuls - the Somali igloo-like shelter made from grass and sticks - have been constructed in the area which has an estimated 5,000 refugees. The security situation, however, does not allow for distribution of aid or registration of refugees in the town or at the makeshift camp. Some limited assistance is, however, being provided to vulnerable groups.

Since mid-April, more than 10,000 Somali refugees had fled clan fighting in the Somalia town of Bula Hawa, over the border from the semi-arid Mandera town. Roughly half of them returned to Somalia during May, allegedly under pressure from Kenyan and Somali officials.

More than 35 Somali refugees, mainly children, have died from disease and malnutrition since then. But refugees last Friday told UNHCR's Representative in Kenya, George Okoth-Obbo, who visited the area, that the total number of deaths so far could be as high as 50.

Seventeen refugees succumbed to hunger and illness in the first week of June, alone, due to rapidly deteriorating health and nutritional conditions in the Mandera area, one of Kenya's poorest regions. Health workers say contaminated water and lack of proper food are responsible for the rising number of cases of diarrhoea and conjunctivitis being seen at the local hospital.

Okoth-Obbo described the refugees' situation as desperate, "but to see with one's own eyes their brutal conditions is really quite moving and shocking," he said. "At the MSF [Médecins Sans Frontières] therapeutic feeding programme, there are nearly 200 severely malnourished children, of whom 30% are refugees from BP1," said the UNHCR representative, referring to the camp on the edge of Kenya' s border. "There would definitely be more patients there, but the centre is full."

MSF has now increased the centre's capacity to enable it to treat up to 240 children. The NGO has also begun house-to-house visits to identify malnourished cases.

Last week, the government authorised the establishment of three supplementary feeding centres in the area. Construction work at a centre close to the border camp was to have started last week and was scheduled for completion by the end of this week. The construction of two other centres in Mandera town is expected to meet the supplementary feeding needs of the local population as well as refugees who are living among family and friends within the town.

The Mandera area suffers perennial food shortages and the situation of the local population there is no less dramatic says Okoth-Obbo.

"Sixty per cent of the children at the centre [therapeutic feeding] are locals. Strictly from the nutrition angle, it is not possible to address the needs of the refugees without addressing those of locals," explains the head of the refugee agency in Kenya.

However, UNHCR's attempts to address the critical needs of the more than 5,000 Somali asylum-seekers stranded at the border camp, and thousands more within the town, have been unsuccessful. Requests for authorisation from the Kenya government to move the refugees to safer areas around Mandera or to existing camps are yet to be approved despite weeks of negotiations.

On Friday, UNHCR held meetings with local authorities in Mandera who reiterated the government's long-held position that no refugees will be settled in the town, adding that they should be transferred to existing camps. However, a first convoy arranged by UNHCR to transfer some 150 refugees from Mandera to Dadaab, some 500 km away, on 24 May was stopped by the government. Okoth-Obbo said the local officials also appealed to the international community to address the root problems in Somalia to stop the displacement of Somalis into Kenya.