Ethiopia: Surge of Somali Refugees Demands Increased Aid Capacity

Unless the capacity to deliver aid is rapidly increased, it will be extremely difficult to meet the needs of Somalis fleeing to Ethiopia, MSF said today.

DOLLO ADO, ETHIOPIA, NOVEMBER 2, 2011 -- Unless the capacity to deliver aid is rapidly increased, there will be significant challenges in meeting the needs of Somalis fleeing to Ethiopia, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today.

Refugee camps in Ethiopia are currently home to roughly 130,000 refugees from Somalia, the majority of whom have fled an ongoing food crisis and conflict. In recent weeks the number of people crossing the border into Ethiopia has increased to approximately 300 per day, up from 90 per day in September and October.

“At the moment, the capacity to receive more people and provide the necessary food, nutritional care, medical care, drinking water, sanitation and more, is grossly insufficient,” said Wojciech Asztabski, MSF project coordinator in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia.

While malnutrition and mortality rates have declined, more refugees are predicted to arrive in the refugee camps. The increasing number of refugees indicates that people in Somalia remain highly vulnerable. Nearly all refugees state that they left Somalia because of a severe lack of food, combined with increased insecurity.

"I didn’t want to leave Somalia, but the hunger and the fighting made life too difficult,” said a 39-year-old mother of four who recently arrived in Dollo Addo. “My husband and my mother are still in Somalia, we did not have enough money to travel, so I travelled alone with the children. We travelled by donkey cart for seven days and nights. Now my son is very sick, he can’t eat and every day he looks more exhausted."

MSF, in collaboration with authorities and other organizations, has assisted in the refugee camps since 2009. Since last May, MSF has dramatically scaled up its medical programs to help bring mortality rates under the emergency threshold of one death per 10,000 people per day, but the organization warns that the emergency is far from over.

“We should be expecting thousands more to come across the border over the next weeks,” said Asztabski. “The reception center and the transit camp, where people stay until they are settled in one of the refugee camps, are rapidly filling up.”

The transit camp currently hosts over 6,000 people, a number that is expected to rise by thousands over the coming weeks. “There are not enough latrines, nor enough shelter and drinking water. More capacity is needed here on the ground, and very quickly,” said Asztabski.

The existing refugee camps are currently full, and the reception center and transit camp are not equipped to receive people for prolonged stays. MSF warns that insufficient levels of shelter, water, and sanitation will further weaken an already vulnerable population.

"This place is making us ill,” said a refugee in the transit camp. “We have been here for 14 days, and here it is safe, but we have no place to sleep. The tents are overcrowded. Children and women are weaker than men, so they become ill.”

MSF is ready to provide life-saving assistance for a prolonged period, and is calling for the Ethiopian authorities to continue facilitating the necessary imports of medicines and materials, while allowing experienced international staff to provide necessary support.

Increased capacity by other agencies is also urgently needed. A new camp is scheduled to be completed and opened in a few weeks’ time. Under the circumstances, MSF calls for greater efforts to make the camp ready earlier in order to lessen the burden on the transit camp as soon as possible.

MSF has been working uninterrupted in Somalia since 1991. The organization also assists Somali refugees in Ethiopia and Kenya. MSF is currently treating more than 22,000 vulnerable children in its nutrition programs in the region. Despite significant challenges, MSF teams have to date vaccinated more than 126,000 people against measles.