Somali refugees flee to Kenya as drought, malnutrition cases rise

Somalia famine

Hawa Mohamed Isack (right) drinks water at Muuri camp in Baidoa, Somalia on February 13, 2022.  

Photo credit: AFP

Medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) says caravans of undocumented migrants from Somalia are fleeing into Northern Kenya due to drought.

This comes as the Horn of Africa grapples with the worst drought in decades, malnutrition and livestock deaths from six consecutive seasons without any rainfall.

MSF said in a statement that its community outreach teams at the Dagahaley refugee camp in Kenya have witnessed an increase in new arrivals from Somalia, most claiming to have left because of the drought.

“In July, MSF teams recorded over 300 new arrivals – likely a gross underestimate. UNHCR has said that some 4,000 people have arrived in Kenya since June 2022,” the group said.

“Kenya stopped registration of new arrivals from Somalia in 2016, and without access to documentation, most new arrivals tend to have very limited access to basic services.”

With declining humanitarian funding for the Dadaab refugee camp, it warned, a spike in new arrivals will only put more pressure on basic assistance.

In June, MSF warned that failing crops and rising food prices, combined with insecurity and a massive invasion of locusts that swept across the Horn of Africa, were pushing hundreds of thousands of people from rural areas to urban centres.

Now, Somalis are fleeing their country to Kenya, which is also grappling with devastating drought and famine.

“They leave their homes with the hope of finding food, clean water, shelter, and health care. Many have sought refuge in camps for internally displaced people, yet these sites often have a lack of toilets, handwashing stations, and clean drinking water,” MSF said.

The current drought follows decades of conflict, recurrent climate shocks, frequent disease outbreaks, and increasing poverty in Somalia and Somaliland.

“And while the drought worsens, the country is also experiencing a massive outbreak of measles,” MSF said.

“Common and preventable diseases like measles and diarrhea have been leading causes of death among children here, and widespread water scarcity and food insecurity are creating the conditions needed for such diseases to spread fast.”

Communities on the frontline of the climate crisis, such as those in Northern Kenya, are not to blame for the climate catastrophe, Kenyan climate justice activist Elizabeth Wathuti, 28, told the Nation.

“They are not responsible for causing the climate crisis – but they are suffering its impacts right now, well beyond what they can adapt to,” she said.

“The global community must not simply abandon them to their fate, which is why it is critical that the Conference of Parties (COP27) climate change talks, to be held in Egypt later this year, delivers a dedicated finance facility to help frontline communities deal with the loss and damage they are already experiencing – and which we know will only get worse.

“Money can never replace what these people have already lost. This is about justice, it is about building trust and solidarity.”

But last week, African climate campaigners called out John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s special climate envoy, for “showing a lack of comprehension of the magnitude climate change portends on the African people”.

The activists were responding to a speech Mr Kerry made during the 18th African Ministerial Conference on Environment (AMCEN) in Dakar, Senegal. 

The campaigners, under the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), said Mr Kerry played with “semantics” and described his presence at AMCEN as a “public relations gimmick” that they said is characteristic of the US government.

Africa was disappointed that Mr Kerry came to AMCEN but did not make a bold commitment that would offer hope to families in the Horn of Africa, Sahel and the rest of Africa whose livelihoods have been turned upside down by a problem they have little to do with, said PACJA Executive Director Mithika Mwenda.

This is because Mr Kerry, in his speech, denied that the West and developed nations bear responsibility for climate change and urged every country to bear the burden of its impact.

The Kenyan government is aware of the new arrivals from Somalia but they are not Nairobi’s responsibility, said Dr Andrew Mulwa, the director of medical services, preventive and promotional health at the Ministry of Health.

“The International Organization for Migration (IOM) takes care of them. It is not our responsibility as our routine healthcare system does not cover refugees but they share the reports.”

Northern Kenya, he said, is in a crisis and the already overburdened healthcare system there is dealing with six million Kenyans facing hunger and malnutrition because of drought.

“We have taken a multi-sectoral approach together with other national and international bodies to deal with this crisis,” Dr Mulwa said.

“The National Drought Management Authority is working round the clock and updating us while [the ministry] has been procuring Ready to Use Therapeutic Foods (RUTFs) through Unicef as the number of malnutrition cases this year has grown from 350,000 to 950,000 as per our latest data.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is dispatching RUTFs to Kenya, Somalia and other countries in the Horn Africa plagued by malnutrition due to drought, Regional Director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti told the Nation.

“We are aware of the devastating situation in Kenya and other countries in the Horn of Africa and will soon be delivering RUTFs as we are working closely with their governments and monitoring the situation,” Dr Moeti said.

The WHO Foundation has started a fundraising campaign in response to the drought crisis in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel regions.

“Over 28 million people across Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda, are experiencing extreme hunger, making them vulnerable to malnutrition, infection, disease and death,” WHO says.

“The worsening humanitarian crises in the Sahel and across the Horn of Africa that have driven millions of people to extreme deprivation and to the brink of starvation require urgent action,” Dr Moeti said.

“Humanitarian assistance, including emergency health services have been severely impaired by chronically low funding.”

President William Ruto, in his inauguration speech, promised to make tackling climate change a top priority, vowing a hundred percent transition to clean energy by 2030. 

He said Kenyans suffer the consequences of the climate emergency.

“It is not too late to respond. To tackle this threat, we must act urgently to keep global heating levels below 1.5C, help those in need and end addiction to fossil fuels,” he said.