Amidst regional drought, malnutrition imperils thousands of refugee children in Dadaab, Kenya 

Amidst regional drought, malnutrition imperils thousands of refugee children in Dadaab, Kenya

Along with hundreds of other recent arrivals from neighbouring Somalia, five-day-old Isha, her five siblings and their parents wait in a queue at the sprawling Dadaab refugee settlement here in north-eastern Kenya. Report by Kun Li, DADAAB, Kenya.

VIDEO: 11 July 2011 – UNICEF’s Kun Li reports on a sharp increase in the number of severely malanourished Somali refugee children struggling to survive in camps in Dadaab, north-eastern Kenya.

“My wife was nine months pregnant when we started the journey,” says Isha’s father, Noor Miyo. “On the way, we suffered. We had to pass through Al Shabab checkpoints, and they took whatever we had.”

Adds the baby’s mother, Nurto Manoor: “I went into labour on the first night after we arrived here. They rushed me to the hospital. Thanks to that, my baby is alright now, but I am worried about her future. Maybe I won’t have anything to give her.”

Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab
Halima Osman (second from right), 8, stands with her siblings and her mother in the Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, where they arrived fleeing drought and conflict in neighbouring Somalia. UNICEF Image © UNICEF/NYHQ2011-1022/Holt

Overcrowded conditions

Ms. Manoor’s concern is shared by many inside and outside the three camps in Dadaab. In recent months, due to severe drought, high food prices and on-going conflict, a huge number of Somali children and their families have fled across the border and sought refuge in the camps.

The Dadaab camps were built for 90,000 people some 20 years ago, but now they house about 380,000 residents. At least another 20,000 are still waiting to be registered.

“These women and children have gone through many hardships,” says UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa Elhadj As Sy, who visited Dadaab this week. The refugees have clearly expressed what they need, including food, water and other basics to help them survive, notes Mr. As Sy.

“At the same time,” he says, “we also realize that there are hundreds more coming in every day, and that’s not sustainable, even if all the necessary things were done.”

Lack of resources

At a hospital ward for severely malnourished refugee children, Amina Ali weeps at her son’s bedside. Ms. Ali is also one of the recent arrivals in Dadaab. Over the past few years, she has lost 6 of her 10 children. Now she is worried that she may lose another one.

“He has diarrhoea and severe dehydration,” says Abdishakur Mohamed, a paediatrician working in the ward. “He has been sick since they arrived.”

Across the camps, feeding programmes have been overwhelmed by a sharp increase in the number of malnourished children. Among the admissions, nearly half are newly arrived. One recent screening at Ifo, one of the camps in Dadaab, showed a 24 per cent malnutrition rate for children under the age of five among the new arrivals. According to the screening results, 9.4 per cent of the children were severely malnourished.

Somali women and children stand outside temporary tents
Somali women and children stand outside temporary tents provided by the UN refugee agency in the Dagahaley refugee camp in Kenya’s North Eastern Province, near the Kenya-Somalia border. UNICEF Image © UNICEF/NYHQ2011-1018/Holt

Mothers need counselling

And mothers and children in the camps face other challenges beyond the shortage of resources and services.

“When the mothers go home with food rations, they often find it difficult to prepare a proper meal because of a lack of access to clean water and firewood,” explains UNICEF Nutrition Officer Olivia Agutu.

Ready-to-use therapeutic foods such as Plumpy’nut, a nutritious peanut-based paste, are given to sick children, says Ms. Agutu. “But in many cases, they have to be shared by the entire family,” she adds. “The mothers definitely need counselling, especially the new arrivals. Many of them may not know how to detect the early signs of malnutrition.”

No room for school

The education needs of refugee children are also immense. Many of them have to take their classes in the open, because the proper schools in Dadaab are too crowded to accommodate them. Child-friendly spaces in the camps are under similar constraints.

A Somali refugee holds her baby son
A Somali refugee holds her baby son in their makeshift shelter on the outskirts of the Dagahaley refugee camp, one of three camps in Dadaab, North Eastern Province, Kenya. UNICEF Image © UNICEF/NYHQ2011-1020/Holt

There is an urgent need for schools here, so that children can have a safe space for learning and recreation – a place where they can forget about the harsh realities of life in the camps.

“While we should do everything possible to take care of the needs of those who are already here,” says Mr. As Sy, “the same level of effort needs to be put in places where people are coming from, so that they should not need to be on the move.”

In a move that could help to ease pressure on the existing camps, the Government of Kenya today announced that it will soon open a new camp extension in Dadaab for Somali refugees fleeing conflict and drought.

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