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A moment of joy inside the world's largest refugee camp

It is the worst drought in 60 years, and still thousands of starving people arrive at camps intended for half as many

The blue plastic band around Shamsa Samow Mohammed's wrist resembles the passes worn by countless teenagers at music festivals. But for her, and her family, it is nothing less than a ticket to survival.

The mother of six walked with her husband and children for 17 days through the desert after the family's crops failed at their home in Dinsoor, a town in Somalia.

Yesterday, she arrived at a UNHCR reception centre on the outskirts of Ifo, one of three major refugee camps at Dadaab, in northern Kenya.

After queuing for hours in the heat, each family is given a numbered and colour-coded band and told to wait. When the number on Shamsa's wristband is called out, the family will be given enough supplies to create a makeshift home, including a tarpaulin, cooking utensils, a mat to sleep on and some maize flour.

Breast-feeding a wide-eyed baby and with several of her younger children leaning on her for support, the 30-year-old described their journey: "We had no food and no water while we walked. It was so hard going through the desert, but we had no choice. We were farmers but the land could not be cultivated with no water. I thought we were all going to die of starvation if we stayed."

Southern Somalia is one of the worst-hit regions in a drought that has worked its way across the Horn of Africa. While many countries in the region, including Kenya, have been affected by the lack of rain, in Somalia the problem has been exacerbated by persistent conflict between the Islamist al-Shabab group and government forces.

The United Nations says nearly four million people face starvation in Somalia alone. In all, it is estimated that some 12 million East Africans have been affected by the drought, which some have called the worst in 60 years. Since the crisis began, hundreds of thousands have travelled to Dadaab, now the world's largest refugee camp.

Unfortunately, Dadaab itself is also showing signs of drought. The parched land is full of dust whipped up by warm winds, and the ground is cracked and dry.

As Shamsa talks about her family's story of survival, her husband, Ibrahim, leaps up in a sudden burst of energy. Their number had been called. As he struggles back from the centre with a large bag of maize, his wife says: "I think we will be alive now." She is smiling for the first time.

But the family's future may not yet be as secure as they hope. Until they are officially registered at the camp's centre – which will take their names, photos and fingerprints – they will not have the ration cards that give them reliable access to food. Because of a major backlog, the number left unregistered is expected to reach 30,000 this week, meaning that those arriving in the camps now are unlikely to get a reliable supply of food until the middle of September.

Magdalen Nandawula, Oxfam's programme manager at Dadaab, said the speed and scale of the influx over the past two months has left services, designed for fewer than half this number of people, seriously stretched. "Last year we were receiving 10,000 people in a month. Now since June alone we've received more than 57,000 people. This means congestion in existing camps, and many are forced to live outside the camps where there is no infrastructure at all: no latrines, structures or water."

The EU Commissioner responsible for Humanitarian Aid & Crisis Response promised yesterday to do all that is possible to support those struggling from extreme drought across the Horn of Africa, pledging to boost aid by €27.8m (£24m).

"We commit to do as much as we can," Kristalina Georgieva said, speaking during a visit to Dadaab. "We really appreciate what the Kenyan government and people are doing. We have a responsibility to share."

The Kenyan government has said it is overwhelmed by the flood of refugees, including those fleeing the parts of southern Somalia that the UN declared on Wednesday were suffering from famine. Relief efforts inside southern Somalia continue to be hampered by the refusal of the al-Qa'ida-inspired al-Shabab – who control both areas declared by the UN to be famine-struck – to lift an aid ban on several foreign aid groups.

The new EU funding comes on top of almost €70m Europe has already contributed to assist those suffering the worst regional drought in decades affecting Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti and Uganda.

Many of the families in Dadaab are travelling without the men, who have been left behind to protect their land. Mohammed Ajan Ibrahim, 35, is the exception. He arrived with his four children in a truck yesterday morning, having left his wife at the Somali border to bring their one remaining possession: a donkey and cart.

"We couldn't leave the donkey and cart. I think it will take her a day to get here and then I hope to find her in a town nearby." But with more than 380,000 people now in the camps and the surrounding area he may struggle to find her.

More than 50,000 people are now living in scattered shelters outside the camps. Aid agencies have been putting in water tanks to these new makeshift camps, but they are struggling to keep up with demand.

While families make homes in the wilderness with no running water, a brand new facility with brick buildings, water, taps and electricity lies unopened, following a political dispute within the Kenyan government.

The camp, called Ifo II, has been ready to house 40,000 refugees since last year, but sources say the government is afraid that opening such a state-of-the-art facility will attract even more refugees. Kenya says that it cannot be opened for "security reasons".

Earlier this month the Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, assured the international community that "the camp is now open to cover for the increasing influx of the fleeing refugees", saying that residents would settle in within 10 days. Today, however, it is 10 days since he made that pledge and still the camp lies empty.

Just a few miles up the road, people are sleeping under hastily assembled twigs and scraps of fabric. Some have been forced to make camps on flood plains, and risk their homes being washed away when the rainy season comes.

Yet, at Ifo II, there are houses, pristine latrines, water taps, five primary schools and a secondary school – all going unused.

The schools are of particular concern to Unicef, which says education rates at those arriving at the camp have plummeted. Just five years ago, more than 70 per cent of the school-age children arriving had some form of education. Now the number is roughly 35 per cent, thanks to the worsening of Somalia's infrastructure.

For most families arriving now, however, education is the least of their concerns. Child malnutrition rates have soared in Dadaab, with health centres full of skeletal children.

At a hospital outside Ifo I, which is run by the German charity GIZ, tiny infants resembling bundles of bones lie listlessly on beds, watched over by their frightened mothers.

Malnutrition was already a problem at the camp and is only being made worse by the new arrivals. Fatima Gedi, 24, has lived in the camp since 1992, but limited access to food has left her one-year-old son, Mubarek, starving.

"My son started off with diarrhoea, coughing and vomiting and now they say he is malnourished. They say there are no drugs for him. The services provided at the camps used to be fine, but now it's much harder to get help."

Dr Hamza Sheikh, who works on the hospital's malnutrition wards, says: "The number of children under five with malnutrition is rising all the time. It is still a problem in the camp, but the main problem is new arrivals. Around 30 per cent of children under five now arrive malnourished."

Rashma Kule, 18, tries desperately to feed a mug of milk to her two-year-old daughter, Arfon Omar, in the hospital's stabilisation centre. Arfon's shoulders are so narrow that her dress hangs straight down from her neck and her limbs hang like twigs. She looks half her age, lying motionless with breathing tubes up her nose.

"I arrived two months ago from Bardere with my husband and two children. Arfon has been getting treatment for seven days now. We had eight herds of sheep and goats in Somalia, but now it is all gone.

"We were so scared on the journey; it took us 15 days to walk. But we had to come here, if we'd stayed we would have died."

Next to the bed are Rashma's flip-flops. A novelty from a New Year gone by, they read "Happy 2010". It is doubtful that 2010 was a happy one for the Kule family, and, with another child still sick back at the camp, it is unlikely that 2011 will be much better.

Give a day’s pay for Africa

The famine in the Horn of Africa is now claiming 250 lives a day – and it will get much worse without immediate, substantial aid. The Independent on Sunday is asking its readers, their friends and families to join with its senior staff and each pledge one day’s pay to charity. To join our “Give a day’s pay for Africa” campaign, go to independent.co.uk/giveadayspay All donations are welcome – to give £5, enough to buy high-energy food supplements to save five children a day, text INDY to 70000. Spread the word on Twitter, using the hashtag #Giveadayspay