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Vacant Camp Slowed Relief to Somali Refugees

Vacant Camp Slowed Relief to Somali Refugees

After several weeks of wrangling, the Kenyan government has finally allowed the opening of a new refugee camp near the Somali border on July 25th.  Called Ifo II or the Ifo Extension, the camp has a designed capacity of 40,000 people, has brick houses, clean running water and even school buildings. Just up the road sit the refugee camps of Dadaab — home to over 440,000 Somalis living in a camp built for 90,000. Conditions at Dadaab are bad and getting worse. So, why did Ifo II stay empty for so long? To understand the challenges facing relief efforts in the Horn of Africa, an understanding of the fight over Ifo II is in order.

Over the past twenty years, Somalia has been fractured by violence and instability, and thousands of Somalis have fled their homeland. A large number of these refugees have ended up in Dadaab. In 2008, Dadaab was declared full, prompting international aid organizations to finance the construction of Ifo II. The camp was completed in November of 2010, but as a result of political disagreements within Kenya’s government about refugees and border security, it did not open.

Some in the Kenyan government, including the Internal Security Minister, Prof Saitoti, argued that opening a new state-of-the-art facility such as Ifo II would merely encourage more refugees to come to Kenya, some of whom could be members of al-Shabaab, and not refugees at all. As the months passed and the humanitarian crisis deepened, pressure from international aid groups to open Ifo II increased — yet this pressure seems to have been simultaneously tempered by the fact that Kenya was already allowing so many refugees to live within its borders.

Finally on July 14th, just days before the UN declared famine in parts of Somalia, Kenyan Prime Minster Raila Odinga announced that Ifo II would be opened within ten days, along with an official reopening of a section of the Kenyan border. The announcement was welcomed by the international aid community, but the political backlash was immediate, with Internal Security assistant minister Orwa Ojodeh issuing this statement:

“The issue of reopening the border is not a one-man show…it needs consultations. A Cabinet paper has to be prepared…Remember we are talking about opening the border with a lawless state.”

However, despite the various political complications, aid organizations seem to have won out, and last week the UNHCR announced that Ifo II had officially been opened and was receiving refugees. It is unclear what exact maneuverings led to the opening, but it is clear that relief efforts have politics to contend with in addition to caring for victims of the drought

Opening Ifo II is only a small step towards ending the crisis in the Horn of Africa. Food aid and far-reaching agricultural investment are what is needed in the long run. In the short term, leaving tens of thousands of refugees in the squalor of Dadaab, while the newly-built and unoccupied Ifo II lies just down the street, seems like a weak strategy indeed.

Posted by Adam Read-Brown.

Photo credit: Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press from the Washington Post