DADAAB, Kenya (Reuters) - Nadifo Farah is traumatized by the death of her baby as she fled Somalia, but she has no time to grieve as she battles to keep her five other children alive in the world’s biggest refugee complex.
Farah hauled her family across the border into Kenya in December, two months after U.N. agencies suspended non-lifesaving activities, including the registration of new arrivals, after two aid workers were kidnapped from the camp.
Kenya has borne the brunt of Somalia’s exodus over the last two decades. Among the 463,000 registered Somalis crammed into congested camps around the town of Dadaab, 10,000 are third-generation refugees born in the camp to refugee parents also born there.
While the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) says Farah is still entitled to emergency food rations, the reality is many who are not registered are turned away from food distributions, camp elders said.
“I was sent away twice from a distribution in Dagahaley,” Farah said, referring to one of Dadaab’s three sprawling camps.
“Then I tried again at another of the camps, Ifo, where the distribution committee chased me away because I didn’t have a food ration card,” she said, surrounded by a mass of makeshift tents in an area known as Bulo Bacte or ‘carcass dump’.
Farah fled the southern Somali town of Afmadow, afraid of a bloody assault on the rebel stronghold by Kenyan troops who moved into Somalia days after two Spanish aid workers were kidnapped from Dadaab.
Unable to register now, new arrivals are forced to settle on the camp’s outskirts, where they are vulnerable to bandits.
Aid workers have reported a surge in child malnutrition, diarrhea, pneumonia and respiratory diseases among those who most recently crossed into the remote, arid corner of Kenya. Cholera broke out in the camp in November.
Inside one tented ward at a Dadaab clinic run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), a mother cradled the emaciated body of her severely malnourished child, stroking his leathery skin.
“The insecurity restricts our capacity to provide health care services and limits the monitoring of our activities,” Vittorio Oppizzi, MSF field coordinator in Dadaab’s Dagahaley camp, told Reuters.
“Unfortunately, these camps will still be there for some time to come unless there is some solution in Somalia to allow these people to go back,” UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told a news briefing in Geneva this week.
The flood of Somalis fleeing famine last year added to the strain on resources.
Kenya says Dadaab’s booming population represents a mounting security threat. Speaking ahead of an international conference on Somalia hosted by Britain, Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula said Kenya wanted the camps closed down.
“We definitely want the refugees to go home. We want them out yesterday,” Wetangula told Reuters in London.
Wetangula said the way was now clear for the refugees to return home because Kenya’s army had liberated “huge, huge” areas of southern Somalia.
Kenyan forces, however, remain subject to frequent hit-and-run attacks by al Shabaab, the al Qaeda-linked Islamist group that still controls large parts of central and southern Somalia.
Wetangula said it would be impossible to defeat al Shabaab without seizing Somalia’s southern port city of Kismayu, a nerve-centre of operations and key revenue source for the militants.
“The head of the dragon is Kismayu. You cannot kill a dragon without hitting it on the head,” the minister said.
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, speaking in London, said he expected the conference there to map out “a firm and durable solution, including the return of these populations to their home country.”
But as the conference came to a close there was no immediate sign that the issue had been definitively addressed.
Most aid agencies dispute Kenya’s assessment that security levels are adequate for refugees to return.
Even so, Dadaab’s pitiful conditions are hard to bear, leaving some contemplating a return to their lawless homeland.
“I regret my decision to come here, it has been a tragedy,” Farah said.
Additional reporting by William Maclean in London and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by James Macharia and Robin Pomeroy