LONDON (AlertNet) - Somali children are arriving at refugee camps in northeast Kenya weak with hunger after walking for days with little food and water, and some are dying before they even get to see a doctor, according to aid group Save the Children.
Andrew Wander, the charity's emergency media manager, told AlertNet he had visited a makeshift settlement outside the main camps around the town of Dadaab - which are overwhelmed with the daily arrival of some 1,400 Somalis fleeing conflict and drought - where he was shown a graveyard. Most of the freshly dug graves were those of children, he said.
"Some of these kids are not even making it to hospital," he said. In a ward he visited inside the camp, the situation was also "extremely serious", he added. "The hospital is full of malnourished children, many on the brink of death."
In the crowded, over-stretched ward, several children are dying each day after long journeys on foot to reach the border, because they are too weak to survive even after receiving medical attention, Wander said.
Earlier this week, the U.N. refugee agency raised the alarm about the high incidence of malnutrition among Somali refugees flowing into Ethiopia and Kenya. UNHCR said more than 50 percent of Somali children arriving in Ethiopia are seriously malnourished, while among those arriving in Kenya, the rate is between 30 and 40 percent - levels not seen "in decades".
At Dadaab, mortality among children under five has trebled, according to the agency.
The U.N. children's agency UNICEF warned earlier this week it is expecting a caseload of 480,000 severely malnourished children in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia this year - around 50 percent more than in 2009.
The Horn of Africa and parts of east Africa are suffering the effects of a severe drought, with around 10 million people in need of aid. That figure is expected to rise as food and water shortages continue to bite into next year.
Save the Children's Wander said he met a group of around 30 Somalis who had trekked for five days to reach Dadaab from the village of Fakow. They had been forced to leave their homes because there was nothing to eat.
"One family was totally starving - they didn't have any food with them, just an empty plastic water bottle," he told AlertNet. "They were desperate, and said they wanted the international community to provide them with food."
UNHCR says around 220,000 Somalis have fled the violence and drought wracking their country so far this year. In June alone, 54,000 people crossed the border into Kenya and Ethiopia - three times the number who arrived in May. At Dadaab, around 80 percent of arrivals are women and children, according to UNHCR.
But when they get to northeastern Kenya, they are having to wait to enter the camps which are already full to the brim. The camps at Dadaab were originally meant to house 90,000 people, but now have more than 380,000 residents.
The agencies running them say they do not have the capacity to process new arrivals quickly, nor enough funds to expand their operations at the rate required.
Andrej Mahecic, a Geneva-based communications officer for UNHCR, told AlertNet people are provided with emergency food rations when they arrive, and go through medical screening to check whether they need urgent treatment. They are then provided with tents which they set up on the outskirts of the camps until their registration is processed.
"This is not really a solution," Mahecic said. "It would be much better if they were inside the camps where food aid is available and the security is better." Refugees already in the camps are trying to help out by making more space, and UNHCR is talking to the government about extending one of the three camps at Dadaab, he added.
Meanwhile, the overcrowding is forcing people to make difficult choices, he said - for example, when a mother has a malnourished baby that needs emergency treatment and other hungry children, does she stay with her baby in the hospital, or leave it with doctors so she can look after the rest of her family outside?
According to Save the Children's Wander, some children are making the long journey to Dadaab unaccompanied by their parents, who may have been killed in the conflict. Where possible, they are being placed in foster homes in the camps.
APPEALS FOR FUNDS
Agencies are now asking for more funds to support their activities in the drought-stricken Horn of Africa. UNHCR plans to issue an appeal in the coming days to enable it to deal with the worsening situation in Somalia and the outpouring of refugees to Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen.
In Britain, the Disasters Emergency Committee - a consortium of 14 aid agencies - launched an appeal on Thursday covering the East Africa drought, as well as southern Sudan which will gain its independence on Saturday.
"Of course these people need a long-term solution with investment and political will - but right now it's about preventing a tragedy," DEC Chief Executive Brendan Gormley said in a statement. "Many of these are a forgotten people, caught in the midst of conflict in Somalia and an ever-worsening environmental crisis."
Aid agencies say they have been trying to get donors interested in the Horn of Africa drought for months now, but revolutions in the Middle East and conflict in Libya have crowded out other emergencies.
The U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, and UNHCR head, Antonio Guterres, are both visiting east Africa this weekend to raise awareness of the growing crisis there.
Save the Children's Wander said it was a "shame" the situation had to become so grave before the world woke up to what was happening.
"The money being spent on feeding children today would have been far better spent on reducing communities' vulnerability to drought," he said. "All we are trying to do now is reduce vulnerability to death."