The camps are full. Child graves are appearing. And still the hungry come

John Davison visits a Somali refugee shelter to witness the scale of the famine crisis unfolding in the Horn of Africa

They call it Bulabakti and it is the place where thousands of people from Somalia are beginning a precarious new existence as refugees from drought, famine and conflict. Lying on the outskirts of one of the largest camps in the Dadaab complex, in Kenya's North Eastern Province, it is a windswept, dusty plain dotted with makeshift shelters and hungry, exhausted people.

It used to be where carcasses of dead animals were dumped and the name means "place of the corpses". It is now a place where the bodies of children are adding to that grim reputation. In just over two weeks a patch of fresh graves has appeared in the area settled by new arrivals, each topped with a tangle of thorns from the mathenge shrub to keep off scavenging animals and birds. Of these, 13 are for children who refugees say died from a mixture of malnutrition and dysentery.

One is for two-year-old Tamina, who died on Monday. She had survived a 12-day trip by truck from southern Somalia with her three brothers and sisters. But she had then fallen sick with a high fever, said Isho Mohammed Adou, 25, her mother, who is seven months pregnant.

In a common story among the new influx of refugees, she had left her husband behind because after selling all they had to pay for the trip there was no money left for him to travel. Isho has got a message to him that his daughter has died. "Now he says he will come," she said.

Every morning from about 5am, hundreds of new arrivals gather outside the gates of the nearby Dagahaley refugee camp. This is now receiving more refugees than the other two camps in Dadaab – the most was 1,536 in one day – while the overall total has reached more than 56,000 since the refugee emergency was declared on 6 June.

"I believe they are still going to keep coming," says Soraya Musau, emergency officer for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), a member of the ACT alliance, which manages all the camps and coordinates the reception process. "I don't believe we have seen the worst of it yet," says Ms Musau.

The crowds are mostly patient and quiet as they wait to gain access to the reception centre. Some carry bundles of belongings.

Many have nothing but their children. The most vulnerable – unaccompanied children, the old or the handicapped – are brought to the front of the queue. At the end of the process, families will have received food for 21 days and other items such as jerry cans and cooking pots to ensure their immediate survival.

But as yet, they have nowhere to go but bleak places like Bulabakti. The established camps are full and planned new sites have not yet been opened. Some tents are distributed, but most arriving families have to build their own shelters of a wooden frame covered with whatever scraps they can forage.

A backlog of 27,000 people waiting for registration as refugees by the Kenyan government is making the situation even more serious, for it is only then that they receive their full ration cards. Bus loads from Bulabakti are taken to a central registration centre every morning, but many return every night empty-handed. This is now leading to disturbances.

Ms Musau said: "They get frustrated and start shaking our gate and throwing stones."

John Davison is part of the LWF emergency response team in Dadaab

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