Africa

Horn of Africa drought: Kenya to open Ifo II camp

Ifo II refugee camp
Image caption Ifo II has room for up to 80,000 people

Kenya has agreed to open a new refugee camp near its border with Somalia, as thousands of people flee the region's worst drought in 60 years.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga said the Ifo II camp, which can fit up to 80,000 people, would open within 10 days.

Some government ministers had feared opening the camp would encourage more Somalis to cross the border.

Announcing the move, Mr Odinga said: "Although we consider our own security, we can't turn away the refugees."

Mr Odinga had earlier visited the nearby Dadaab refugee camp, where he said the situation was unacceptable.

Aid workers say conditions at the camp - which is made up of three settlements - are desperate. About 370,000 people are crammed into an area set up for 90,000 people, they say.

Government 'victim not accused'

But the prime minister rejected criticism that Kenya should have opened Ifo II earlier. He said Kenya had lived with the refugee crisis for 20 years and had been asking the international community for help all that time.

"They are only now responding when they see people are dying. The international community is always very later in acting. So the Kenyan government is a victim, not the accused."

Mr Odinga said Kenya would not take responsibility for the logistics of opening the Ifo II camp.

"It's up to the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] to work on the modalities and how they can move into Ifo II," Mr Odinga said.

The UNHCR had been urging Kenya to open the camp for the past two years but the government stopped work on it earlier this year, citing security concerns as one of the reasons.

UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres on Monday held talks with Kenya's Internal Security Minister George Saitoti to appeal to him to open the camp.

The BBC's Kevin Mwachiro says the announcement the camp will open could not come at a better time. He says more than 1,300 refugees are crossing into Kenya from war-torn Somalia every day.

'Security threat'

On Wednesday, Kenya's Assistant Internal Security Minister Orwah Ojodeh told the BBC a new camp would not be a solution to the hunger crisis.

Instead, food relief should be provided inside Somalia as hunger, not insecurity, was the reason most refugees were heading for Kenya, he said.

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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But Immigration Minister Otieno Kajwang said he was embarrassed that the government was refusing open the Ifo II camp.

This was despite the fact that the UN had given Kenya tens of thousands of dollars for the camp, he said.

Mr Kajwang blamed the failure to open the camp on security chiefs and officials in President Mwai Kibaki's office.

"The problem is that our provincial administration [officials based in Mr Kibaki's office] and our security officers look at the huge influx as a threat to national security," he said.

"On the other hand, we see it as a crisis that must be managed. It is our responsibility under international law and our own law."

Mark Bowden, the UN humanitarian affairs co-ordinator for Somalia, told the BBC that Somalia was not yet facing a famine, but was "close" to one.

"The next few months are critical," he said.

'Breadbasket'

The BBC's Will Ross in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, says the UN World Food Programme (WFP) is exploring every possibility to increasing its presence in Somalia.

However, the WFP says it will not be able to return to areas controlled by the militant Islamist group al-Shabab unless it receives security guarantees.

Last week al-Shabab said it was lifting its ban on foreign aid agencies, provided they did not show a "hidden agenda".

Our reporter says there is clearly a desperate need for more food distribution in Somalia.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is reporting a dramatic rise in malnutrition rates even in the part of Somalia normally considered to be the breadbasket of the country, our reporter says.

Somalia's Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali told the BBC a refugee camp has opened in the capital, Mogadishu.

The government had set aside money to help drought victims, but it had "meagre" resources.

"We are appealing to the international community to take the matter seriously and to act quickly to save as many lives as we can," he told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme.

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. Some 3,000 people flee each day for neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya which are struggling to cope.

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