World’s Greatest Ongoing Humanitarian Disaster Reaches a Crisis Point

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Somali refugees lead their herds of goats home for the night, inside Dagahaley Camp, outside Dadaab, Kenya, Sunday, July 10, 2011. (Photo: Rebecca Blackwell / AP)

With more than 60,000 starving and thirsty Somalis camped outside of the world’s largest refugee camp, what some aid agencies deem the world’s worst humanitarian crisis is facing its “critical days,” according to a UNICEF spokesperson.

Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, originally constructed to hold 90,000 people — making it the biggest camp in the world —  is now home to approximately 400,000 people according to Bettina Schulte, Dadaab spokeswoman of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR. Well beyond capacity, the camp is drawing thousands upon thousands of drought-fleeing Somalis, many of whom have no choice but to live in even more tenuous circumstances in the environs around the camp. Yearly dry seasons often send inhabitants of the warn-torn country fleeing into neighboring Kenya, but the Horn of Africa’s worst drought in 60 years will provoke an even more desperate crisis should the current refugees in eastern Kenya and the 1,400 new ones arriving each day not receive sufficient aid.

“In a week’s time we’ll know whether we’ve turned a corner,” said UNICEF spokesperson Patrick McCormick. “These are the critical days.”

Although the problem of overcrowding has been brewing for years at Dadaab, aid groups tend to respond to the spikes every year rather than seek long-term solutions to the issue, McCormick says. But this year has already seen the largest influx refugees on record, and some estimates suggest the final tally will reach 500,000 by summer’s end.

In addition to widespread poverty, the Horn of Africa is also suffering the effects of rising food prices and endless, destabilizing political conflict, particularly in Somalia, where the government controls little outside of the capital Mogadishu. All of these factors have created an environment in which a bad drought can tip the scales, leading to the loss of thousands of lives and mass dislocations. “There’s no quick fix, but it will get better when the rains start,” McCormick said. “What we really need to start doing is thinking about how we’re going to mitigate the problem further in future years.”

Dadaab, which is actually three different camps knitted together, was built in 1991 to accommodate refugees from the Somali Civil War, a conflict whose fractious legacy continues to smolder the region. Earlier this year, Kenyan authorities announced that the encampments were entirely full, and any further refugees would have to resign themselves to camping beyond its walls. But officials had anticipated this problem in 2010, and began construction on a fourth and fifth camping center to augmented Dadaab’s capacity.

Work was completed on one of these camps — called Ifo II — in January, but the clean and well-equipped camp remains empty. The reasons for not utilizing Ifo II remain murky, according to Alun McDonald, an Oxfam representative  based in Kenya. Government officials in Nairobi have declared that their refusal to allow refugees into the camp is in the interest of national security, but local residents have argued that Somalis on the public land outside the camps are no less of a threat.

“It’s hard to get to the bottom of [the decision to keep Ifo II empty]: they say it’s a national security issue, but that doesn’t make much sense,” McDonald said. “These people are already in Kenya, and they are mostly women and children living literally two kilometers away from this functioning camp… I’m not sure logically how that makes it more secure.”

The UNHCR confirmed that the refugees are chiefly women and children, who are self-described farmers and animal herders hailing from the Lower Juba Region of Somalia.

McDonald said the decision to keep refugees out of the empty camp is also affecting how well aid agencies are able to do their jobs. Oxfam, he said, is unable to organize effective water distribution for the refugees outside the camp because there are no pipes. So instead of focusing all of its resources on immediate care, the organization will spend another several weeks building a new extension of the water supply.

The growing number of refugees camped outside of Dadaab is also leading to mounting health and sanitation problems. Even when immediate demands for food and water are resolved — and this amid an ongoing drought that has left two million children malnourished — unsanitary living conditions and the absence of latrines outside the camp have begun to lead to disease, especially in children. UNHCR estimated that there needs to be an additional 30,000 family latrines for ideal sanitation levels.

In addition to allowing for more effective aid, opening Ifo II could also ease resentment between Kenyan locals and the refugees living on their land. Although the Dadaab-area residents are reportedly supportive of sheltering the refugees, the region was already one of the most impoverished in Kenya and has also been severely affected by the drought. This situation, McDonald says, has lead to some tension over the use of community land for makeshift camps.

But these problems pale in comparison to the struggles for survival in Somalia where food is so scarce that most refugees will endure several weeks-long journeys through the desert just for the hope of nourishment at overcrowded Kenyan camps. During this journey, many Somalis — most of whom are women and children — have to brave often fatal attacks by packs of hyenas and armed bandits, says McDonald.

“The fact that they’re making these journeys shows how desperate they are to escape from hunger and conflict,” he said. “It’s pretty scandalous, really, that when they get [to Dadaab], they aren’t allowed to use this empty camp.”

UNICEF and other aid agencies have issued urgent calls for aid and donations, but, by all accounts, the international community’s has been sluggish in the face of this slow-moving, yet no less fatal, disaster.

Everett Rosenfeld is a TIME contributor. Find him on Twitter at @Ev_Rosenfeld. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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