If the Dadaab refugee complex in northeastern Kenya were a city, it would be second in size only to the capital of Nairobi.
With about 465,000 refugees and displaced people crowded into the hot, arid desert not far from the border with Somalia, the camp is acknowledged by relief agencies as the largest refugee camp in the world. Nearly a third of the people in the camp — some 160,000 Somalis — arrived in the last year alone, fleeing drought, famine and violence in their homeland.
Catholic Relief Services is one of the numerous agencies serving the refugees. Michael Hatch, the agency’s emergency response coordinator in Kenya, told Catholic News Service that food, water, sanitation and hygiene are the primary needs of the people, some who have been housed in the camp for years.
CRS, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency, is working in a section of the camp known as Cambios, where 13,500 people live. The organization soon may be responsible for the care of another 8,000 people, who are in another part of Dadaab known as Hagadera. The move is being eyed because the services are much better in Cambios, Hatch said.
Partners in the effort include the World Food Program and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The agencies are saying the need is great and that money is running short. Hatch said CRS alone projects needing $2 million between now and October 2013 to continue its work at current levels. (Contribute here.)
CRS joined the other agencies working in Dadaab, including CARE, Danish Refugee Council, International Rescue Committee, Lutheran World Federation, Oxfam International and Terre des Hommes (Land of the People), in calling upon the world for financial assistance, saying that $25 million was needed for services. In a July 11 statement, the groups also urged the international community to rethink its approach to long-term solutions for the camp.
Hatch said any discussions must address the security of the aid workers themselves. In June, Somali militants ambushed a two-vehicle aid convoy in the camp. A Kenyan aid worker was killed and four international workers from the Norwegian Refugee Council were abducted and held for several hours before being released. In October, gunmen entered Dadaab and grabbed two Spanish women working for Doctors Without Borders. The women remain missing.
Meanwhile, Hatch said the relief work continues, albeit with beefed-up security.
Waste management is one of many concerns in such crowded conditions. CRS has coordinated the construction of latrines for people to use. Having safe, clean latrines is important so that women and children don’t have to walk to nearby wooded areas where they are at risk of attack and sexual assault.
“You’re starting with nothing and you have these people coming in and they’re coming quickly,” Hatch said, describing the challenges the camp poses to refugees and aid workers alike. “You want health and safety.”
The harsh geography poses its own challenges. The sandy soil means the latrines have to be reinforced. Otherwise, they would not work properly, Hatch explained.
On top of that, the agencies are trying provide adequate housing — newcomers get a dome tent, which last just four to six months — as well as health care and education for kids. Hatch said CRS and others are facing a tremendous challenge.
“As long as people are in Cambios we want to make sure they’re getting the best services possible, whether it’s us or another agency,” he said.