With a population of 400,000, Dadaab in north-east Kenya is the world’s largest refugee camp. It is a desperate and miserable place where many of the hungry arrivals have walked for several grueling weeks from neighboring Somalia to escape drought. Every day, hundreds more families set off to make that same treacherous voyage; along the way, having survived the threat of criminal gangs or wild animals, many children are orphaned or killed by hunger.
The cramped settlement is at the heart of the refugee crisis caused by the worst drought to affect East Africa for 60 years — described by the United Nations as a “humanitarian emergency”.
In a familiar routine, people around the world have finally seen the images of suffering and are telling their governments to help. The United States will contribute 19,000 metric tons of food to assist Somalis in need; Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has said that the U.S. will work with African governments to avert a crisis. On the ground in Dadaab, there is evidence of the American contribution; many of the food bags handed out to refugees are badged ‘U.S. Aid’ — a familiar logo in this part of the world.
But aid workers at Dadaab admit that this sort of charitable response has its limits — it will take much more than food aid to Somalia to end the anguish.
Although humanitarian groups say that this tragedy has been developing for several years, many complain that the world delayed its response until the moment that evidence of terrible suffering emerged. With the drought finally climbing the international agenda, some fear that the new foreign aid is too little and too late.
Andrew Wander from Save the Children, who is in Dadaab, said: “Early warning systems were predicting this crisis months ago…humanitarian aid money is too often like an ambulance, arriving only after disaster strikes. We should not wait until people are dying to make funds available”
Perhaps it is countries in the region that are best-placed to provide some of the immediate measures that might ease the suffering — but these are countries which are themselves ravaged by drought.Although many people around the world are only now showing extraordinary charity through public appeals, Kenya has been helping the victims of the region’s drought for some time; it now seems keen to draw a line. Worried about the impact of the crisis on its own scare resources, generosity towards its neighbor is being severely tested.
Northern and eastern parts of that country have been struck hard by the deadly conditions too — but people still stream into the area because things there are not quite as bad as they are in Somalia. So, with one fist, Kenya must fight a potential famine, with the other it fights a refugee crisis.
The Kenyan government is being urged by the international community to open up a new settlement next door to Dadaab refugee camp. The camp, called ‘IFO II’, was constructed last year and is ready to take 40,000 refugees; yet it sits empty because the government has refused to sanction its use. Compared to the main Dadaab camp, just a few miles away, it is extremely comfortable; compared to the bloodshed and potential starvation of Somalia, it is absolute paradise.
So why the delay? Aid agencies suspect that Kenya is worried about making their country even more attractive to the refugees. Many of them seem unwilling to make the return journey home when conditions improve.
You can see Kenya’s apparent thinking; long after the rain has returned and the world has turned away, they might be stuck with the long-term legacy — thousands of extra people that it can’t afford to feed. Farmers might struggle to re-establish their livelihoods and feed their communities; citizens might be forced to compete with each other for food and water.
If this worst-case scenario emerges, will the world offer immediate help, or will it wait for images of extreme suffering to emerge?