Famine victims refused access to Kenya's showpiece refugee camp

Authorities fear the new 'Ifo II' could be overwhelmed, reports Emily Dugan from Dadaab

For years Bula Buqtu was the place where residents of Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp dumped the dead bodies of their parched animals. The graveyard acted as a physical reminder of the devastation that drought has wrought on the region.

Map showing Dabaab camp: Click to download (16k)

But as thousands of famine victims from southern Somalia descend on the world's largest refugee camp every day, Bula Buqtu – "place of the carcasses" in Somali – has become one of the few places left to set up a home.

Situated on the outskirts of Dagahaley camp, one of three refugee settlements in Dadaab in northern Kenya, aid agencies are struggling to provide water and latrines fast enough for its ballooning population. Here, desperate families have created shelter from woven twigs and scant scraps of material. With fresh water and facilities a long walk away, it offers scant refuge for those who have often walked for three weeks, with little food or water, to get here.

Yet, just up the road a pristine camp with the best facilities in the region – and enough space for up to 40,000 people – remains unopened. The camp, called Ifo II, was finished by a group of aid agencies, including the UK's Oxfam, last year but the Kenyan government refuses to open it.

It has five ready-built primary schools, a secondary school, four boreholes pumping out clean water, hundreds of latrines and even brick houses with proper corrugated roofs. All lie unused. Instead, more than 380,000 people are now trying to survive at the existing three camps in Dadaab, which were designed to serve less than half that number.

A disagreement within the Kenyan cabinet is understood to be causing the delay in opening Ifo II. Sources say that many senior politicians are worried that opening such a well-equipped camp would open the floodgates and attract more people to cross the border. They believe that any more of an influx could become a security threat for Kenya.

Eleven days ago the Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, promised the international community that Ifo II would be open within 10 days . But yesterday, as the facilities lay deserted behind a locked gate, there was no sign that he was keeping to that pledge. A spokesman for the Kenyan government reiterated yesterday that the delay was down to "security concerns".

Magdalen Nandawula, Oxfam's programme manager at Dadaab, is incensed that the camp has lain unused for so long while hundreds of thousands are forced to live in squalor. She said: "People are already here so they need to be served properly. Outside the main camps there's no infrastructure; no latrines or water. At Ifo II we have water from four boreholes; it's all finished. The crazy thing is that water from these boreholes is now being trucked to supply tanks elsewhere."

An estimated 12 million people are now on the brink of starvation in the region. With thousands of Somalis crossing the border into Kenya every day, new arrivals are finding it increasingly hard to get help quickly.

Fatima Aden Mohammed, 30, walked for 25 days with her family from Bardera in Somalia's Juba valley before reaching Dagahaley camp. She came with her husband Made Manur, his second wife Abdiya Ahmed, and the two women's 11 children. Fatima's youngest daughter Habiba did not survive the journey. The two-year-old died of malaria and malnutrition before they had even crossed the border into Kenya.

"We weren't able to find a hospital," she whispers, without taking her eyes from the ground. The family used to be relatively well off, with 40 goats and 100 sheep, but the animals all died after the drought.

She has made her knee-length headscarf into a protective tent for the youngest of her sick children to shelter from the the sun. The tiny legs of her four-year-old daughter Dahira are just visible underneath it. She has advanced malaria and malnutrition, and her forehead is sticky with sweat.

Fatima looks in desperation at the queue ahead of her waiting for biscuits and water from a trolley outside the reception centre for Dagahaley camp. But when they finally arrive at the front of the queue they realise there is a problem: this is not charitable relief but a business. In the middle of all this despair, a man has decided to take home a profit, charging desperate refugees 10 Kenyan shillings (7 pence) for a glass of water. After realising their mistake they make their way to the shut gates of the reception centre itself – which has stopped letting people in. A crowd of several hundred have gathered, begging to be let in. Fatima's family are lucky. The centre makes an exception after hearing their story, allowing them to receive medical tests, milk, food and shoes.

Each of her children is measured in turn for malnutrition and all are in the danger zone. The worst is Fatima's seven-year-old daughter – also called Fatima – who weighs just 12 kilos (26lbs), the typical weight of a two-year-old child in the UK. After half an hour Fatima and her family finally have their passes and will be eligible for full food, cooking and camping rations, but the next question is where they will go.

Shueb Mohamed Hassan, an aid worker with the Lutheran World Federation, said the family would most likely end up having to settle in the inhospitable Bula Buqtu on Dagahaley's outskirts. "Most people who leave this reception centre end up there. Ifo II is very nice but it is not open. They have nowhere else to go."

UN considers airdrops of aid

Hampered by landmines and the threat of violence from al-Shabaab militants, aid agencies are struggling to reach the 2.2 million Somalis on the brink of starvation, the head of the UN food agency said yesterday.

The World Food Programme (WFP) is now considering air-drops to help those in hard-to-reach areas of the country, said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the WFP. Much of Somalia's border areas are littered with mines from previous conflicts and al-Shabaab, which controls large swathes of the country, has regularly targeted aid agencies, with a renewed threat from the group last week.

"It is the most dangerous environment we are working in, in the world," Ms Sheeran said.

G20 leaders, UN representatives and aid agencies are due to hold an emergency meeting in Rome today to discuss the international response to the East Africa crisis. The UN has declared a famine in two parts of southern Somalia. Charities describe it as a worsening humanitarian disaster.

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