Refugees stranded as world's largest camp runs out of room

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The Independent Online

The largest refugee camp in the world is full and nearly 30,000 people are stranded in desperate conditions on the border between Somalia and Kenya, a medical charity warned yesterday.

The population at the complex of camps at Dadaab in northern Kenya has risen to 350,000, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres, leaving no room for new arrivals.

"The families are headed for the refugee camps of Dadaab but the three camps in the Dadaab area are already full and there is nowhere for them to stay," the organisation said in a statement yesterday. A chronic drought in Somalia has added to the pressures created by war and lawlessness in the country, sending a fresh wave of refugees south.

International attempts to get new land to enlarge the camps have broken down in recent weeks with Kenya insisting that refugee centres should be set up inside Somalia itself. Kenya has refused to allocate new land for camps, saying that local communities are already overwhelmed.

"It is possible that the international community can secure these refugees inside their own country," Francis Kimemia, Kenya's internal security chief, said.

Conditions at Dadaab, which is run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), have been compared to a "humanitarian emergency" by relief agencies. But the situation for new arrivals on the fringes of the camps is even worse. Families, who typically arrive from the war zone in Somalia with nothing, face a wait of up to 12 days for food rations in temperatures reaching 50C.

"We have registration cards but we still haven't received any food rations," said Sara, 39, who arrived at Dadaab 15 days ago. "It's very unsafe here – at night we're scared that wild animals will eat the children and we've had threats of violence from local people who say the land is theirs."

Already the size of a city, the story of Dadaab reflects the recent history of Somalia. Its three camps – Hagadera, Ifo and Dagahaley – were built to house those who fled when the last functioning central government of the socialist dictator Siad Barre collapsed in 1991. The camps soon reached their initial capacity. As Somalia, 50 miles to the north, has sunk deeper into the mire, the number of refugees has risen.

Somalia is a country surrounded by political walls. Its land borders with Ethiopia and Kenya have been closed to protect those countries from the feared radical Islamic militias on the other side.

About 44,000 new arrivals have been registered since the beginning of this year at Dadaab with hundreds more arriving every week. An entire generation of children has grown up knowing the camps as their only home.

Somalia remains in a state of anarchy and Dadaab is facing an extraordinary influx. The UN has made several attempts to declare the camps full but that has not stopped desperate people from arriving.

With the population of the camps projected to swell to 450,000 over the next year, living conditions are getting worse and aid workers warn that water, sanitation and medical facilities are stretched to breaking point.

"More refugees are on their way," Nenna Arnold, a nurse with Medecins Sans Frontieres, said.

"We are already at bursting point, but the figures keep growing. This situation is a humanitarian emergency."