(Geneva) - The Kenyan government should rapidly fulfill its February 2009 pledge to provide more land for its mushrooming Somali refugee population, and donors should step up their financial support for the refugee camps, Human Rights Watch said today.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced four months ago that Prime Minister Raila Odinga of Kenya had made a commitment to provide land to help relieve congestion in three chronically overcrowded camps near Dadaab in northeastern Kenya. But the Kenyan government has yet to make any land available. This has left tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Somalia's ongoing armed conflict with no option but to squeeze into the bursting camps - built for 90,000 refugees but now sheltering 275,000 - on other refugees' tiny plots of land.
"The refugee crisis worsens with every day of delay," said Gerry Simpson, refugee researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Continued paralysis and unresponsiveness puts the well-being of all the refugees - new and old - at grave risk."
Somalia, which has been without a functioning government since 1991, has since late 2006 been engulfed in a brutal armed conflict in which thousands of civilians have been killed. Well over a million people have been repeatedly displaced, largely de-populating the capital city, Mogadishu. In recent weeks, up to 75,000 people have fled indiscriminate fighting in Mogadishu after a brief lull in the conflict had induced thousands of previously displaced people to return to the city.
The Somali crisis has generated thousands of refugees every month and has transformed the Dadaab camps in Kenya into the largest single concentration of refugees in the world.
In December 2008, UNHCR appealed for US$92 million to help address years of chronic under-funding and to build new camps to accommodate 120,000 of the refugees currently living in the old ones. However, the negotiations for new land, which began over a year ago, remain stalled due to understandable demands by local Kenyans that they should benefit more from the aid agencies' presence and that any new camps should be managed in an environmentally sustainable manner. Both the local authorities and Kenya's Ministry of Provincial Administration and Internal Security have yet to sign off on an agreement.
The March 2009 Human Rights Watch report, "From Horror to Hopelessness: Kenya's Forgotten Somali Refugee Crisis ," documented the appalling conditions caused by overcrowding in the Dadaab camps, including an overwhelmed sanitation infrastructure, inadequate shelter, limited access to water, and poor healthcare. The report also documented how tens of thousands of refugees arriving since August 2008, when the camps were declared full, have been forced to live on tiny, already-overcrowded plots of land belonging to refugees of longer duration or to build their own makeshift shelters outside the camps' official boundaries.
Because it will take six months to build a new camp for 120,000 refugees, at best the overcrowding in Dadaab's existing camps will not begin to be relieved until January 2010, by which time they are expected to shelter at least 320,000 refugees.
"Even if 120,000 refugees are transferred to a new camp in six months, the old camps will still face massive overcrowding and a steady incoming flow of new refugees in 2010," Simpson said. "This further underlines the urgency of the situation as well as the need to plan for further camps to deal with the likely numbers arriving next year."
To date, international donors have committed $32 million to UNHCR and humanitarian organizations working in the camps, only one-third of the amount needed under UNHCR's appeal. By the end of May 2009, eight donors had committed $18.9 million to UNHCR's Dadaab operation, with the bulk coming from Japan ($5m), Canada ($4.25m), the United States ($3.4m), and the United Kingdom ($3m). The other donors are Belgium ($1.3m), Sweden ($680,000), France ($656,000), and Germany ($640,000).
Seven donors have also committed $13 million by directly funding nongovernmental organizations working in the camps: the European Commission ($4m), the United States ($2.5m), Italy ($2.2m), Denmark ($2.1m), Germany ($1.2m), Sweden ($620,000), and Norway ($400,000). So far, Australia - another donor in Kenya and one of UNHCR's main traditional funders worldwide - has committed no funds to Dadaab.
Some of Kenya's major donor states, such as Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden (who between them have so far contributed 23 percent of UNHCR's 2009 global budget), say they generally avoid earmarking funds for specific crises such as Dadaab so that aid agencies can freely choose where to allocate funds worldwide. Norway has also recently provided new funding for aid operations in Somalia, with an unknown amount benefitting Somali refugees in Kenya.
To help cope with the funding shortfall, UNHCR has added $7 million to its Dadaab operation, drawing $ 2.5 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and $ 4.5 million from Sweden's various global and regional contributions to UNHCR.
"Asking aid agencies to support nearly 300,000 refugees with land and infrastructure meant for less than a third that number is completely unsustainable," said Simpson. "Donors should take all possible steps to encourage the Kenyan authorities to provide more land, and should then do all they can to finance the rapid building of new camps."