(Nairobi) - The Kenyan government, foreign donors, and United Nations agencies should rapidly increase their response to the worsening Somali refugee crisis in Kenya, Human Rights Watch said today.
More than 65,000 Somali refugees will have sought refuge in Kenya by the end of this year, up from 19,000 in 2007. New arrivals face extortion and abuses when trying to cross Kenya's officially closed border and are received in appalling conditions in overcrowded, underserviced refugee camps.
"Desperate civilians escaping the devastating conflict in Somalia need help, not more danger, abuse and deprivation," said Gerry Simpson, refugee researcher for Human Rights Watch. "They should be able to cross the border safely and then get the aid in Kenya that they urgently need."
Citing security concerns, Kenya officially closed its 682-kilometer border with Somalia in January 2007, when Ethiopian troops intervened in support of Somalia's weak transitional government and ousted a coalition of Islamic courts from Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. Over the past two years an escalating armed conflict by Ethiopian and Somali government forces against an insurgency, resulting in numerous war crimes and human rights abuses, has forced almost 900,000 residents of Mogadishu to flee the city and provoked a growing influx of Somali refugees into Kenya.
The border closure has forced tens of thousands of refugees to use smuggling networks to cross the porous border into Kenya. It also led the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to close its transit center, where all refugees were registered and given health checks before being transported to the camps.
A Human Rights Watch investigation in the Dadaab refugee camps in October 2008 concluded that closing the border to refugees violated the international refugee law prohibition against forced return (refoulement) and has resulted in serious abuses. Some refugees described being forced back to Somalia because they could not pay bribes to Kenyan police. A number of others were arrested, held in appalling detention conditions in the camps or nearby towns, beaten, and in some cases deported back to Somalia.
"Kenya has legitimate security concerns and a right to control its borders, but its borders can't be closed to refugees fleeing fighting," Simpson said. "Closing the border has only made Somali refugees more vulnerable to abuse and lessened the government's and UNHCR's control over who enters Kenya and who is registered in the camps."
Even if they manage to enter Kenya, the new arrivals face enormous challenges getting even minimal assistance. Most head to one of three camps near the town of Dadaab, the only place in Kenya where they are entitled to shelter and care. Built in 1991 for 90,000 people, the Dadaab camps now shelter almost 250,000, most of them Somali refugees.
In late August 2008, the camps were declared officially full. Since then, new arrivals have received no shelter materials and have been forced to live with relatives or strangers in cramped tents or huts. UNHCR estimates that 34,000 new shelters are needed to meet international aid standards, but it only has funds to build 3,000 and no land on which to build them.
Because politicians and community leaders demand that impoverished local Kenyans benefit more from aid agencies' presence in the area, negotiations between UNHCR and the government for land for a fourth camp have made little progress. With a lack of additional donor funds to respond to the ever-increasing rate of new arrivals in Dadaab - at least 8,000 in October alone - the situation is a rapidly developing emergency.
"The UN failed to plan adequately for the influx, and with no end in sight to the fighting, there could be 300,000 Somalis in Dadaab by the end of 2009," Simpson said. "The UN humanitarian coordinator should step in immediately to reach an agreement with the Kenyan government for more land and to convince donors to fund refugees' most basic needs."
Dadaab's camps - looking after well over 100,000 since 1992 - were severely underfunded even before the new wave of refugees started arriving in 2007. Acute malnutrition in the camps now stands at 13 percent. Although registered refugees receive the minimum amount of food under international aid standards, UNHCR acknowledges that many are forced to sell food to buy essential non-food items such as wood for fuel and basic household goods.
Dadaab's crumbling 17-year-old water system provides only 16 liters per person per day, four liters below the minimum under international aid standards. Sanitation conditions are appalling: UNHCR estimates that 36,000 latrines and washing facilities are needed to reach minimum standards. Healthcare teams cannot deal with growing chronic needs.
"Since early 2007 almost 100,000 new refugees have arrived," Simpson said. "The lucky ones manage to get registered and receive food, but little else. Thousands of less-fortunate, unregistered refugees beg for food and water from old refugees. And everyone ends up hungry and thirsty."
The crisis in Dadaab is made worse still by UNHCR's inability to keep up with the rate of new arrivals. Human Rights Watch spoke with many recently arrived refugees, including mothers with many children, the sick, and the elderly, who had tried in vain to register for many weeks or months.
Dozens of people told Human Rights Watch that private security guards at the gates of the UNHCR office at the only camp still allowing registration demanded bribes and turned them away when they could not pay. Despite overworked UNHCR staff registering a record number of refugees over the past few months, Human Rights Watch estimates that thousands of people have not been able to register. Human Rights Watch called on donors to provide immediate emergency funding to UNHCR and humanitarian organizations working in Dadaab to ensure that new arrivals are promptly registered and provided with shelter and other essential assistance.
"In one hour alone, in one small corner of one of the camps, we identified 180 people - mostly women and children - who had tried for weeks to get registered, had failed, and who told us they had given up," said Simpson. "After risking their lives to flee appalling violence in Somalia and make it to the relative safety of Kenya, they end up with nothing: no food, no shelter, and incredibly difficult access to water and health care."