DADAAB, Kenya — The bloody conflict in Somalia has created the world's largest refugee camp, with 500 hungry and exhausted refugees pouring into this wind-swept camp in neighboring Kenya every day, the U.N. refugee agency said Friday.
Dadaab, just 50 miles from the Somali border, is home to more than 280,000 refugees in an area meant to hold just 90,000.
So far this year, the U.N. refugee agency has registered nearly 38,000 new arrivals, UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said Friday. The vast majority of them are fleeing violence and poverty in Somalia as Islamic insurgents try to topple the government.
"It is hunger and destitution that drove us from our country," Abdullahi Abdi Dahir, 50, said earlier this week. He fled Somalia with his wife and their five children, the youngest just 3 months old. "All we need now is something to eat and a shelter for the family."
177,000 fled Mogadishu
Since May 7, fighting between Islamist insurgent groups and government forces has killed at least 225 people, and displaced nearly 170,000 from their homes in the capital, Mogadishu.
The three camps that make up Dadaab were established in 1991 after Somali warlords toppled dictator Siad Barre and carved the country into armed camps ruled by clan law. The area was never meant to hold so many people, and overcrowding has become a massive problem.
"The new influx of refugees is putting more pressure on an already aged infrastructure," said Anne Campbell, head of the UNHCR's office in Dadaab. "We are appealing to the Kenyan government to provide us land to settle them (new refugees), and call on the donors to give us the funding we need to set up a new camp and upgrade the old ones."
Many longtime refugees also lament the fact that they cannot leave the camp to make a life in Kenya. The government has strict rules requiring them to stay, arguing that integration into Kenya is not a "durable solution" for refugees.
Kenya closed its border in January 2007 to prevent Islamists fleeing Somalia from entering the country, but the closure also has forced refugees to sneak into Kenya.
Some refugees, like Dahir's family, avoid border points entirely and use donkey routes in the bush. Dahir said the trip to the refugee camp took his family 10 days, two of which they walked on foot. He said he begged drivers of the cars heading for border towns to take his family.
The Dadaab camp complex is the world's largest refugee camp, followed by Tindouf in Algeria, where some 90,000 are staying, according to UNHCR.
Before this year's influx of refugees began at Dadaab, the refugees were complaining about shortage of services and aged infrastructure, such as health, sanitation and water systems.
39,000 latrines needed
The U.N. said it needs funding to build 39,000 new latrines to cater for the increasing number of refugees.
"The consequences of not having a functioning water system and adequate latrines could be very severe," said Daniel Dickinson, spokesman for the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office, which is spending $4 million to repair the aged water system in the camps and says it will build more than 5,000 latrines for refugees this year. "Certainly there could be a humanitarian catastrophe if these people are not getting enough water."
But those fleeing violence care less about the aged facilities or the overflowing camps. Reaching safe camps, away from bullets and grinding poverty in Somalia, is all Dahir's wife, Hawo Ahmed, needs.
"If you get food, what else do you need?" she said while breast-feeding her youngest child. "He will not get enough milk, I know. But when we settle down and I get enough food to eat, he will get sufficient milk."
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