UN-run camps for Somalia refugees in Kenya enter 20th year of existence

UNHCR set up the first camps in the Dadaab complex in 1991 to host up to 90,000 people. Today they host more than 463,000 refugees. Photo: UNHCR/B.Bannon

21 February 2012 – The world’s largest refugee camp – the Dadaab settlement in eastern Kenya – set up to host tens of thousands of people who fled Somalia following the 1991 collapse of the government and the ensuing civil war-related humanitarian crisis is marking its 20th anniversary with the population having grown exponentially, the United Nations refugee agency said today.

The original three camps in Dadaab – Ifo, Dagahaley and Hagadera – were established by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) between October 1991 and June 1992 to host up to 90,000 people. They are currently home to more than 463,000 refugees, including some 10,000 third-generation refugees born in Dadaab to refugee parents who were themselves born there.

During last year’s famine in Somalia, arrival rates frequently exceeded 1,000 people a day, UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic told reporters in Geneva.

About 30,000 people arrived in June, 40,000 in July and 38,000 in August last year, placing additional strain on services. Local authorities and UNHCR and partners managed to address the influx by establishing reception centres and rapid response assistance for new arrivals.

The agency, the Kenyan Government and other relief organizations have been providing protection, shelter and humanitarian assistance, often under difficult and complex circumstances. Chronic overcrowding, risk of disease, and seasonal floods are among the challenges.

On the 20th anniversary, UNHCR is renewing its appeal to the international community to ensure continued support to the approximately one million Somali refugees in the region, and to Kenya and the other countries hosting them.

The past two decades have also underlined the need for the restoration of peace in Somalia so that the refugees can have a prospect of going back.

The situation at Dadaab is currently extremely challenging. The kidnapping of three aid workers late last year and more recently, the killing of two refugee leaders and several Kenyan policemen, as well as threats against humanitarian staff have forced UNHCR and its partners to rethink the way relief is delivered.

“Life-saving assistance such as the provision of food, water and health care never stopped and has always been our priority,” said Mr. Mahecic. “In addition, schools run mostly by refugee teachers have been open and managed to conduct Kenyan national exams at the end of 2011 despite the insecure environment.”

Humanitarian agencies have since the end of last year looked at various ways to resume activities, using different methodologies and most importantly, shifting more responsibilities to the refugee communities.

News Tracker: past stories on this issue

Kenya: UN scales up refugee training to improve assistance in camps

Related Stories