UN admits vital refugee camp for famine victims could stay closed

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Almost two weeks after the Kenyan government was supposed to open a new refugee camp on the border with Somalia, the UN has admitted that it has no idea when it will be made available to victims of the famine.

Earlier this month Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga visited the area and said that the purpose-built camp, Ifo II, which has been available since November last year and has schools, clean water, latrines and brick houses, would be opened. But an ongoing political row means that the camp remains locked up, as The Independent reported on Monday.

Hundreds of starving refugees are being moved on to an alternative site, Ifo extension, which has none of those facilities. "We don't know when it will be open," William Spindler from the UN's refugee agency UNHCR said yesterday. "We hope soon, as the needs are huge." Despite frantic UN efforts over the last two days to dig latrines at Ifo Extension, "what we have is basically tents," Mr Spindler admitted.

In a separate statement, the UNCHR made no reference to the continued closure of Ifo II, instead thanking Kenya for its "incredible generosity". Meanwhile the medical charity MSF joined the criticism of the authorities over the saga. Alfonso Verdu, MSF's director of operations, asked: "Why is a camp that is clearly ready not being opened?"

The UN has shied from a row with Kenya, where the influx of refugees is becoming a political issue ahead of next year's elections. The Dadaab refugee complex – built with international aid money – was designed to house 90,000 refugees but now has nearly 400,000.

Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher for Human Rights Watch, said: "Faced with an unfolding humanitarian crisis, it took three years for Kenya to give the UN the green light to build a new small camp, and when it was ready it took another nine months for the Prime Minister to allow refugees to move there." He added: "Yet even now, it appears refugees cannot enter the new camp."

Rations on 'roads of death'

The UN will airlift emergency rations this week to parts of Somalia that militants banned it from more than two years ago – a crisis intervention to keep hungry refugees from dying along what an official calls the "roads of death".

The foray into the famine zone is a desperate attempt to reach at least 175,000 of the 2.2 million Somalis aid workers have not yet been able to help. But restarting the aid effort is a huge challenge for the World Food Programme (WFP). Fourteen WFP employees have been killed in Somalia since 2008.

The new feeding efforts in southern Somalia near the border with Kenya and Ethiopia could begin by tomorrow. AP