UNHCR urges Kenya to move Somali refugees away from disease, malnutrition at border
MANDERA, Kenya, May 31 (UNHCR) - Ten Somali refugees, including eight children, have died from disease and malnutrition in Kenya's volatile border region in the last six days. Hundreds more are at risk of malnutrition as Kenyan authorities are preventing aid agencies from moving the refugees to a safer location inside Kenya.
"It's a looming catastrophe," said UNHCR Representative in Kenya, George Okoth-Obbo.
Between 3,500 and 5,000 Somali refugees are encamped in the Mandera border zone. All of them show visible signs of starvation and malnutrition. About 70 children were admitted this week to the local hospital suffering from severe malnutrition. Most of them have since received therapeutic feeding from UNHCR's partner MSF Spain, but about 800 children remain at risk of severe malnutrition if food is not delivered in the next two days.
Data from Mandera Hospital also indicate that the refugees are suffering from serious cases of malaria, diarrhoea, conjunctivitis, anaemia and abdominal parasite infection. There are 400 pregnant or lactating women and 2,000 children among the refugees in Mandera.
UNHCR has been negotiating with the Kenyan authorities in Nairobi and Mandera to obtain their agreement to either create a temporary site 7 km away from the border, or transfer the refugees to the existing refugee camps in Dadaab (eastern Kenya) or Kakuma (north-western Kenya). In the meantime, UNHCR would like to at least establish an emergency therapeutic feeding centre within a safe distance from the border.
Last Friday, a first convoy of 150 refugees was ready to leave from Mandera to Dadaab - a three-day, 500-km journey. The planned transfer was suddenly called off when the authorities refused to give the green light.
Two weeks ago, UNHCR sent three planes of assistance supplies to Mandera, including water tanks, tents, high-protein biscuits and plastic sheeting, as well as medicine and supplies for the hospital. However, it is presently not possible to mount an effective emergency programme of assistance at the border. Last Saturday, plans for food distribution were disrupted when gunfire broke out across the border.
About 10,000 Somalis fled to Kenya following clan fighting in the Somali town of Bula Hawa, across the border, in April and May. On May 15, stray bullets killed four refugees and injured seven others. "If fighting breaks out again across the border, lives are bound to be lost, as happened two weeks ago," said Okoth-Obbo.
The refugees are currently encamped at a very insecure location just 500 metres from the border between Kenya and Somalia. Roughly half of the initial 10,000 refugees returned to Somalia two weeks ago, allegedly following visits by Kenyan and Somali officials encouraging them to go back. They are believed to be encamped at a location called Belet Amin, not far from the Kenyan border.
UNHCR expressed concern that no refugee should be pressured to go back. The situation is especially worrying, given rumours that armed groups may be approaching Bula Hawa in a bid to reclaim the town. As such, it is unlikely that the refugees at the border will be able to return to Somalia safely in the near future.