East Africa drought: Kenya's controversial camp opens

Families outside their new tent at Ifo II camp on Thursday 18 August 2011 - (Photo: BBC's Kelvin Brown)
Image caption The refugees who began arriving on Thursday are moving into new tents pitched at the Ifo II site

The first 200 Somali refugees fleeing famine and conflict have moved into a controversial camp in Kenya that has been lying empty for several months.

The government had stopped work to prepare the Ifo II site because local people resented the permanent buildings being handed over to Somalis.

It has more than 100 houses, three schools and a clinic, but most of the arrivals will be housed in tents.

The Dadaab area of north-eastern Kenya is now home to 400,000 Somali refugees.

The East African region is suffering from its worst drought in 60 years, affecting 12 million people.

Image caption The permanent houses at Ifo II will be reserved for the most vulnerable families

Somalia has been the worst-hit country with five districts suffering from famine and much of the country controlled by the Islamist al-Shabab group which has banned many aid agencies from its territory.

The BBC's Mike Wooldridge in Dadaab says relieved officials of the UN refugee agency described it as a very important day as the first Somali refugee family stepped off the bus at Ifo II.

UN officials acknowledged that the delay in opening the site had been deeply frustrating but said they realised the impact that such a large number of refugees had on local people.

According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the 116 permanent houses built at Ifo II will be for the most vulnerable families.

An estimated 1,500 Somalis are arriving every day at Kenya's massive Dadaab camp - the world's largest refugee camp.

It is made up of several sites where the refugees are accommodated - Ifo II is an area of the most recent settlement.

UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told the BBC many of the new arrivals have been staying in makeshift shelters without access to water and sanitation on the outskirts of Dadaab.

At Ifo II 1,500 tents have been put up allowing new refugees to be properly cared for, he said.

High-profile visits

Somalia has been without an effective central government since 1991 and has been plagued by infighting between rival warlords.

Two weeks ago, al-Shabab, a group which is linked to al-Qaeda, made what it called a tactical withdrawal from the capital, Mogadishu.

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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In the past few days there has been a string of international politicians flying into the city to see for themselves the thousands of famine victims pouring into the capital from al-Shabab areas.

On Friday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due in Mogadishu in an effort to draw the world's attention to Somalia's plight.

He will be the most high-profile political leader to visit Somalia and will come days after Turkey and other Muslim countries pledged $350m (£212m) to assist in famine relief in the Horn of Africa.

Meanwhile, the presidents of Uganda and Eritrea have agreed publicly that they want to see Somalia "re-constituted" as a nation.

In the past both countries have supported opposite sides in the Somali conflict.

Uganda contributes most of the troops for the African Union force providing security in Mogadishu for the weak UN-backed interim government, while Eritrea is accused of supporting al-Shabab - which it denies.

BBC Africa analyst Martin Plaut says both presidents now appear to be calling for a new Somali authority to be formed; this would bring the government in Mogadishu together with Somalia's breakaway regions - including Puntland and Somaliland.

It implies a considerable change, since it could mean the end of Uganda's unconditional support for the Somali government, he says.

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