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Refugee Crisis in Horn of Africa

Asio Dagene Osman cares for her severely malnourished 7-month-old son, Minhaji Gedi Farah, in a hospital in the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya 26 July. Already the world’s largest refugee settlement, Dadaab has swelled in recent weeks with tens of thousands of recent arrivals fleeing drought in Somalia, many of them arriving in poor condition. (photo: CNS/Paul Jeffrey)  

04 Aug 2011 – by Paul Jeffrey

DADAAB, Kenya (CNS) — It took 32 days for Fatima Mohammed to make it from her drought-racked farm in Somalia to the relative safety of a sprawling refugee settlement in northeastern Kenya. There were days, she recalled, when her children were so thirsty that they could not walk and the men in her family would ferry them ahead, returning to carry two more children in their arms.

Fatima Mohammed told Catholic News Service that her family had lived through drought before, but that support from aid agencies helped them survive until the rains returned.

“This time, al-Shabaab won’t let them in,” she said, referring to the Islamist group that controls portions of Somalia. “So when our animals started dying, our only choice was to stay and die ourselves, or else start walking for Kenya.”

They trekked across the desolate stretch of African bush, all 11 members of the family, often walking with other families in large groups to dissuade attacks from wild animals and bandits. They arrived in Dadaab at the end of May.

As the world has watched, in recent weeks the three camps that make up the Dadaab refugee complex have swollen to barely manageable proportions. Originally designed for 90,000 refugees when it opened two decades ago, the complex today host upward of 390,000 refugees, plus at least 60,000 people who have fled Somalia but are not yet officially registered with camp managers. United Nations officials say 1,300 newcomers arrive every day.

The rapid growth — and the dramatic media attention — has brought an influx of new agencies looking for ways to augment the work of the almost two dozen nongovernmental organizations already here. Among the newcomers is Catholic Relief Services, which sent an assessment team to Dadaab in July.

CRS sponsors programs in other parts of Kenya but it doesn’t work in Dadaab. The agency’s executive vice president for overseas operations, Sean Callahan, said that while CRS is looking at ways to support the work of others, it’s unlikely to get directly involved.

“We want to come here and assist, but we also recognize this is one of those intractable situations,” Callahan said. “If you get into the camps, you may never get out. Our priority is helping people become self– sustainable, and this doesn’t look like one of those situations. So we’re listening and trying to figure out how best we can contribute.”

The need for assistance is clear, however.

“Most people here seem to have no strategy to go back, so the Kenyan government is in tight bind. The international community has to step up and help them,” Callahan said.

According to the camp manager, Anne Wangari, Dadaab’s long-term residents have helped fill the gaps that emerged with the new influx, despite cultural differences.

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