Tragic Deaths Underscore the World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis

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Recently arrived Somali refugees stand outside tents at the Dadaab refugee camp — the world's largest — in Kenya. (Photo: Kate Holt / EPA / Care International)

197 mostly Somali migrants died when their overladen boat capsized in the Red Sea. Escaping a world desperately short of water, they met their end by drowning.

That sad irony underscores the collective misfortune of those enveloped by the worst ongoing humanitarian crisis in the world: they were fleeing the parched Horn of Africa, which is experiencing its worst drought in 60 years. Somalia and Ethiopia have been the worst hit. Fleeing drought and hunger, refugees have poured into nearby Sudan and Kenya, creating a tense political situation and stresses on their host countries as well.

Large tracts of arable land in Somalia have gone six full years without rain, and the past two seasons have been dire for the entire region. Yet Mother Nature was only the catalyst for this problem, which finds its roots just as much in nationwide impoverishment and a lack of investment as the recent rain shortage. And now, approximately 12 million people are suffering the devastating affects of high food prices, according to Oxfam.

Hungry and desperate Somalis are fleeing by the thousands to Kenya where Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, is 290,000 people over capacity according to UNICEF. About 10,000 more refugees are streaming in every week.

Recently, NGOs have begun to organize aid for the affected areas: Oxfam plans to raise $80 million, which would make that aid its largest ever for Africa. Additionally, the United States government has tentatively pledged to get involved beyond the meager $14.5 million it has already donated this year. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on Wednesday that she would coordinate a response to try to prevent widespread famine.

But more factors than political will stand in the way of alleviating the hunger crisis. Although Somalia is largely lawless, the powerful Islamist group al-Shabab lifted its ban on foreign aid in response to the United Nation’s declaration of “pre-famine” conditions. It remains to be seen, however, if the group will accept U.S. aid.

“Anyone with no hidden agenda will be assisted… and those who intend to harm our people will be prevented to do so,” Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, a spokesman for al-Shabab, told the BBC.

Some reports indicate that groups like al-Shabab impose strict rules for aid organizations operating in the area, including that all female employees be fired.

The U.S. donated roughly 10 times as much humanitarian aid to Somalia in 2008, when conditions were comparatively better. But in early 2009, the U.S.-backed government, whose power is paper thin, was overwhelmed by militant groups, and aid flows slackened thereafter.

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.