Save Somali Refugee Children from Malnutrition

by US Association for UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency)
A young Somali refugee receives a vaccination.
A young Somali refugee receives a vaccination.

Lives hang in the balance as Somalia's Al Shabaab militia has revoked permission for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other UN aid organizations to work in areas controlled by the group.

"This comes at the time of a dire humanitarian crisis in southern and central parts of Somalia," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told journalists in Geneva. "We are assessing the impact of this latest development on our humanitarian operations in these parts of Somalia," he added.

The spokesman said military operations and heavy rains were limiting the movements of the displaced population in Somalia's Gedo region bordering Kenya. There have been no cross-border movements between the border towns of Dobley in Somalia and Liboi in Kenya.

However, Mahecic said, there were reports of more than 500 people, including children, travelling on foot from Qooqaani, Tabta (both in Gedo region) and Afmadow (Lower Juba) towards Dobley.

"They cite a lack of food in their towns, cut off by the recent rains and military activity. Some people who have already arrived in Dobley told our staff that they were forced to leave their homes due to lack of food," he said.

"They indicated that they are willing to return as soon as the situation improves and are not planning to cross the border in order to reach Dadaab [refugee complex in north-east Kenya]. A number of agencies are operational in Dobley, undertaking distributions of food and other assistance," he added.

Insecurity, meanwhile, continues to hamper UNHCR's operations in Dadaab, which is home to some 460,000 refugees, more than 150,000 of whom arrived this year after fleeing drought and conflict in Somalia. It has been several weeks since the authorities stopped registering new arrivals. Aid agencies cannot assess the number and condition of new arrivals as their movements are still limited in the camps.

More than 360 refugees have been affected by cholera and acute watery diarrhea. Most are treated as outpatient cases and there is a need for more supplies of oral rehydration salts and other treatments. At Dadaab's Kambioos site, the mortality rate has decreased and it is expected that the situation will further stabilize following food distributions over the weekend.

Despite security restrictions, the authorities managed to complete a mass oral polio vaccination campaign for all refugee children aged under five years. And efforts are continuing to enhance security measures in Dadaab, including the deployment of additional policemen.

In eastern Ethiopia's Dollo Ado camps, UNHCR staff are noting high rates of severe malnutrition among refugee children under five years old arriving at the transit centers. In response, UNHCR and its partners are expanding a wet food program to all children up to the age of 10, and adding milk powder to their porridge to boost nutrient levels.

A fifth camp in that area, Bur Amino, is ready to receive a first batch of more than 7,000 refugees from the transit center as of November 30th. The transfer of refugees from the Dollo Ado transit center will start initially with 500 people and will increase gradually until all the refugees are moved to the new site.

But access to these areas is increasingly difficult due to heavy rains. The roads are intermittently impassable and the local airstrip is often flooded preventing aircraft from landing. "This is seriously affecting our supplies and operations as we run low on fuel, electricity and safe drinking water," Mahecic said.


Dahira, 11, and her brother, Mahad, 2
Dahira, 11, and her brother, Mahad, 2

Somali children are the biggest victims of the refugee crisis in the Horn of Africa, according to the latest profiling data collected by UNHCR in Ethiopia. The most recent demographic breakdown of the Somali influx into Ethiopia shows that children under the age of 18 are the largest age group among refugees. Overall, they account for some 80% of the 121,000 refugees sheltered in four camps in the Dollo Ado region of southeastern Ethiopia.

Somalia famine - Mother with baby and registration card Dollo Ado Ethiopia

The situation is most extreme in the Kobe camp, where children comprise 88.6% of the camp's population of over 25,000. Most families are female-headed households with large numbers of children, including young relatives or orphans.

"We remain concerned about the high mortality rates due to severe acute malnutrition and diseases," states UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards.  Medical screening of new arrivals is recording severe acute malnutrition among 19% of children in Kobe camp. At nearby Hilaweyn, the rate is 16% while in Melkadida and Bokolmanyo the rates are 10% and seven percent respectively. Severe acute malnutrition is the most critical level of malnutrition, and poses a particular risk for children below the age of five. UNHCR considers a rate of over one percent to be alarming.

In light of these findings, an inter-agency task force agreed yesterday to increase food distribution points in the camps, to urgently open additional centers for nutritional feeding and to ensure that malnourished refugees receive appropriate supplementary food.

After consulting with the refugee community, awareness-raising campaigns will be conducted to encourage refugees to access health services. Outreach workers will go from tent to tent and look for malnourished children who are not enrolled in the feeding programmes. They will also trace children who may not be continuing with nutritional feeding treatment. Given the severity of the situation, UNHCR expects that malnutrition rates will remain high for some weeks until the situation stabilizes.

The number of separated or unaccompanied children is also alarming, as initial estimates indicate this number; there may be as many as 2,500 children in the four camps in Ethiopia without a parent or guardian. "We are carrying out a screening this week in refugee camps in Dollo Ado to better understand the scope of the problem and determine what may be in the best interest of these children," Edwards says.

Many refugee women tell our teams in Ethiopia that it is not safe for Somali men to travel. They fear forced recruitment by armed groups and local militias. In many cases, men stay behind in Somalia to protect whatever property the family may have, to care for those too sick to travel and to tend to any remaining livestock. Some families simply do not have the means for everyone to travel together, so women and children are sent first. However, over the past few weeks UNHCR staff have observed that there are more single men arriving from Somalia to join their families.

Meanwhile in Somalia, UNHCR is supplementing food aid delivered by other agencies in famine-stricken areas in the south. According to UNHCR Somalia Representative Bruno Geddo, "It is imperative to scale up delivery of massive amounts of aid as quickly as possible to needy people inside Somalia if we are to maintain the recent downward trend in outflows towards Ethiopia and Kenya." He recently returned from Dollow on the Somalia-Ethiopian border and Mogadishu, and said that internally displaced Somalis he spoke with continued to express the desire to remain in their country rather than cross an international border in search of assistance.

The UN Refugee Agency is preparing to distribute 7,500 Emergency Assistance Packages (EAPs) consisting of plastic sheets, sleeping mats, blankets, jerrycans and kitchen utensils, for nearly 50,000 people in the Bay region of Somalia, where famine has just been declared by the UN.

A further 70,000 people are to be assisted in Lower Shabelle, also in famine. Over 50,000 people will be reached through distributions in Mogadishu and 30,000 will be reached in the Gedo and Lower Juba border areas.

All in all, by the end of August, UNHCR reached almost 220,000 people and aims to reach an additional 180,000 by the end of September.

A mother holds her baby while awaiting UNHCR aid.
A mother holds her baby while awaiting UNHCR aid.
UNHCR staff brings a family into reception center
UNHCR staff brings a family into reception center
A Somali refugee girl near Hamey, Kenya
A Somali refugee girl near Hamey, Kenya
UNHCR prepares tents for refugee families in Kenya
UNHCR prepares tents for refugee families in Kenya


UNHCR humanitarian aid airlifted into Somalia
UNHCR humanitarian aid airlifted into Somalia

In the last three months alone, 30,000 children have died from the effects of the famine and drought in the Horn of Africa.

In light of the ongoing crisis, The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has issued an emergency public service announcement (PSA) for the Horn of Africa:

Click here to view the video.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, has called the famine in war-torn Somalia “the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.” Americans are urged to contribute to UNHCR’s urgent life-saving efforts by donating any amount online or texting SOMALIA to 80000 to add a donation of $10 to your wireless bill.*

These urgently-needed donations will allow UNHCR to deliver humanitarian aid inside Somalia and will save the lives of the victims of this brutal famine. 

The emergency PSA comes at the same time as UNHCR’s assessment of the four refugee camps in Ethiopia revealed death rates in Kobe camp reaching alarming levels. On average, 10 children under the age of five have died every day since the refugee camp opened in June.

UNHCR has appealed for over $144 million in urgently-needed donations for its life-saving emergency response to provide shelter and protection. Of this, $8.6 million is slated for expanded aid projects inside Somalia. UNHCR is one of just a handful of organizations that currently has access and staff inside Somalia.

To date, only 68% of the emergency appeal has been funded. Without continued funds UNHCR’s crucial work could be in jeopardy. UNHCR and its fundraising partners are urging Americans, if they can, to contribute to this crisis today.

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Aid items are unloaded from a truck in Al Adala.
Aid items are unloaded from a truck in Al Adala.
A woman collects her UNHCR aid package in Somalia.
A woman collects her UNHCR aid package in Somalia.
Severely malnourished children await aid.
Severely malnourished children await aid.
A Somali woman shows her UNHCR card to receive aid
A Somali woman shows her UNHCR card to receive aid


A chartered aircraft with aid arrived in Mogadishu
A chartered aircraft with aid arrived in Mogadishu

A UNHCR-chartered aircraft carrying emergency aid for thousands of displaced people landed on Monday, August 8th in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. It was the first UNHCR aid airlift to the beleaguered city in five years.

The Ilyushin IL-62 cargo plane, carrying more than 31 tons of shelter material and some 2,500 emergency assistance packages, flew in from Dubai, where UNHCR has an aid stockpile. The special packs include plastic sheeting for shelter, sleeping mats and blankets, jerry cans and kitchen utensils. The second flight is scheduled to arrive on Thursday with the third to follow next week.

UNHCR has been shipping its relief items to Mogadishu by sea and by land but, due to the dramatic rise in the number of civilians uprooted because of famine and conflict in recent weeks, the agency decided to airlift supplies and save time.

An estimated 100,000 Somalis, driven by drought and famine, have fled to Mogadishu over the past two months in search of food, water, shelter and other assistance. There were already more than 370,000 internally displaced people in Mogadishu before the current wave of displacement.

"This airlift of emergency assistance items will allow us to continue delivering aid to those displaced by drought and famine," said UNHCR Representative to Somalia Bruno Geddo. "We need the funding support to continue to enable us to replenish our emergency stocks inside Somalia as they are being rapidly depleted as we deliver much-needed aid across southern Somalia," he added.

UNHCR has appealed for $145 million to provide protection and emergency assistance for the displaced in the Horn of Africa until the end of the year. It has either received or has firm projections for $65 million. This amount covers less than 45% of identified needs for Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

The UN Refugee Agency is calling on donor countries, the private sector and individuals to urgently come forward and contribute towards closing the existing funding gap.

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Organization Information

US Association for UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency)

Location: Washington, DC - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Lauren Meling
Washington, District of Columbia United States

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