Horn of Africa drought: Kenya pressed over Ifo II camp

Clive Myrie reports from the empty Ifo II camp

The head of the United Nations refugee agency has urged Kenya to open a new camp for people fleeing drought and conflict in Somalia.

UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres said he had held "constructive" talks with Kenyan Minister George Saitoti.

The Kenyan government has so far refused to authorise the completion of the Ifo II camp, which has room for up to 40,000 people.

It fears it would encourage refugees to stay in the country permanently.

The new facility is close to the Dadaab camp, which has been overwhelmed by the recent influx.

Some 10 million people are said to be affected by the Horn of Africa's worst drought in 60 years.

Somalia, wracked by 20 years of conflict, is worst affected and some 3,000 people flee each day for neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya which are struggling to cope.

Dadaab is reportedly the world's biggest refugee camp - it was built to house 90,000 people but could soon be holding 500,000, aid workers say.

Extended drought is causing a severe food crisis in the Horn of Africa, which includes Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. Weather conditions over the Pacific means the rains have failed for two seasons and are unlikely to return until October.
An estimated 12 million people in the region are affected by the drought. The UN has declared a famine in six areas of southern Somalia, where it says 750,000 people could die in the coming months in the absence of adequate response.
The humanitarian problem is made worse by conflicts. Militants had lifted a ban on aid agencies operating in parts of southern Somalia, but have since accused Western groups of exaggerating the scale of the crisis and again limited access.
Since the beginning of 2011, around 15,000 Somalis each month have fled into refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia looking for food and water. The refugee camp at Dadaab, in Kenya, has been overwhelmed by more than 420,000 people.
Farmers unable to meet their basic food costs are abandoning their herds. High cereal and fuel prices had already forced them to sell many animals before the drought and their smaller herds are now unprofitable or dying.
The refugee problem may have been preventable. However, violent conflict in the region has deterred international investment in long-term development programmes, which could have reduced the effects of the drought.
Development aid would focus on reducing deforestation, topsoil erosion and overgrazing and improving water conservation. New roads and infrastructure for markets would help farmers increase their profits.
The result of climate conditions, conflict and lack of investment is that millions of people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia are currently existing on food rations in what is said to be East Africa's worst drought for 60 years.
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The BBC's Daud Aweis in Kenya says that the UNHCR has been trying to persuade the Kenyan government to open the Ifo II camp for two years but it might succeed this time, as the crisis is so severe.

Mr Guterres had been due to meet Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki on Monday but the talks were called off at the last minute, with no reason given.

Our reporter says that local people, who are also badly affected by the drought, fear that a new influx of refugees could spell environmental disaster for the arid region.

Visiting Dadaab over the weekend, UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres said that Somalia was the world's worst humanitarian disaster.

"Here in the outskirts of the Somali refugee camp of Dadaab, we have the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable of the vulnerable in the world," he said.

He also urged aid agencies to start working in Somalia, as many people are to weak to walk for weeks to seek help - some malnourished infants are already dying.

Last week, the militant group al-Shabab, which controls many southern and central areas of Somalia, said it was lifting its ban on aid agencies.

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