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The Nation: Inside Kenya's Crowded Refugee Camps

Women and children from southern Somalia rest in front of their makeshift shelters at Badbado refugee camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011. The U.N. has estimated that only 20 percent of people needing aid are able to receive it because an al-Qaida-linked group controls large portions of the country. i

Women and children from southern Somalia rest in front of their makeshift shelters at Badbado refugee camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011. The U.N. has estimated that only 20 percent of people needing aid are able to receive it because an al-Qaida-linked group controls large portions of the country. Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP hide caption

toggle caption Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP
Women and children from southern Somalia rest in front of their makeshift shelters at Badbado refugee camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011. The U.N. has estimated that only 20 percent of people needing aid are able to receive it because an al-Qaida-linked group controls large portions of the country.

Women and children from southern Somalia rest in front of their makeshift shelters at Badbado refugee camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011. The U.N. has estimated that only 20 percent of people needing aid are able to receive it because an al-Qaida-linked group controls large portions of the country.

Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP

Lauren Sutherland is a writer in New York City, and a former Nation intern.

In the fall of last year, the landscape of the Dadaab refugee complex, about fifty miles from Kenya's border with Somalia, began to change dramatically. Slipshod tents built from scavenged plant matter and windblown detritus started springing up amongst the acacia trees that dot the arid plains of northeastern Kenya.

Dadaab's boundaries had been swelling for years, but never so far out, nor so quickly. It started at Dagahaley, one of the three original camps that make up the complex, and then at a second camp, Ifo. With no more designated land to give to arriving refugees — plots had run out in 2008 — unauthorized camps, referred to grimly as "the outskirts," appeared beyond the official sites. The white tarpaulin tents of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) gave way to motley hemispherical huts: loose twigs braided together into giant tumbleweeds and draped with old clothing, burlap and scraps of trash.

By February of this year, another ad hoc settlement was spreading, outside of the third camp, Hagadera. The monthly arrival rate at Dadaab had climbed by then from somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 people, to about 10,000. And the settlements kept growing.

By the time famine was declared in two regions of Somalia on July 20 — another three regions were deemed certifiably famished in early August — the monthly rate had tripled: at least 30,000 more refugees had arrived between June and July, roughly the number of people each camp was designed to shelter when they were first established in 1991. Now, around 440,000 people live in this camp built for 90,000. Visiting Dadaab makes one thing plain: this crisis did not just "strike" Somalia, contrary to what the headlines exclaim.

"Our animals died, and we have had no rain, to farm, for two years," Hussein Mohamed Siad told me at Ifo in June. He and his family had just arrived, walking from the embattled Gedo region of Somalia, where in February some 180 villages had already been abandoned because of the drought. It took them 31 days to reach Dadaab. "For the last twenty years we have had increasing war," he said. "But for us, the main reason we run is drought." He'd already lost most of his livestock when militiamen came to take the rest.

There is no question that governments and international agencies have been sluggish in their response to the drought in the Horn of Africa. Pledges of emergency aid started flowing in mid-July, but the gulf between escalating UN appeals and international donations suggest that both sides seriously underestimated the scope of the disaster. In Somalia, the most distressed and most challenging country to reach, the 20-year-old civil war has meant even less emergency relief than its neighbors. This is not just due to Somali insecurity: a counterproductive international intervention has helped create the conditions for the crisis, and is now impeding the response (over the same period, globalized economic policies have opened the region to agricultural markets while stifling subsistence agriculture — a larger trend underlying the famine that has received little honest discussion).

At the center of this intervention today is opposition to Somalia's al-Qaida-linked group, al-Shabaab, which has waged a relentless insurgency against Somalia's Transitional Federal Government and its foreign supporters for the last five years — and which is now squarely taking the blame for aggravating the effects of the drought. There have been reports that local Shabaab groups have starved the people under their control, intercepting humanitarian assistance, controlling access to water sources, and, most recently, holding captive those fleeing to camps in Mogadishu, Kenya and Ethiopia. In this southern half of the country, one of the most dangerous parts in the world for humanitarian workers, aid has long been scarce. Last year, many agencies had either suspended their operations in southern Somalia, or had been banned by al-Shabaab.

But the actions of al-Shabaab are only part of the story. In 2008, the last time the world rallied around a major food crisis in the region, the international community raised almost $2 billion in response. Almost half a billion dollars went to Somalia, 41 percent of which was given by the United States. That same year, the Bush administration officially declared al-Shabaab a terrorist organization, imposing financial sanctions spelled out in layers of counterterrorism legislation. Aid groups say these sanctions have virtually prevented U.S. or U.S.-funded agencies from operating in al-Shabaab controlled territory. Under the sanctions, local NGO partners or contractors could be found to be providing the group with "material support," the parameters of which are only vaguely defined. The sanctions have also affected relationships with important local allies that NGOs spent years cultivating, says Sarah Margon, the Associate Director of the Sustainable Security and Peace Building Initiative at the Center for American Progress. "In some cases negotiations with local authorities — who might then be willing to negotiate with a local group of al-Shabaab — could have been possible," she says. But with the sanctions, aid groups have worried that even indirect negotiations are too risky.

To continue reading, and see more photos, visit The Nation.

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