An influx of asylum-seekers fleeing violence in Somalia to the refugee camps in Dadaab in north-eastern Kenya is causing overcrowding that could lead to a humanitarian crisis, UN officials have warned.
The refugee population in Dadaab has risen to 224,000 from 171,000 in January. "Poor shelter, sanitation and a shortage of non-food items are posing a great challenge to the new refugees, especially now that the rainy season is here," said Liz Ahua, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) representative.
"We may soon face a humanitarian crisis if we continue depending on the three existing camps to accommodate the new arrivals," Ahua said in a joint communiqué issued by UNHCR, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Dadaab's Dagahaley, Ifo, and Hagadera refugee camps are now holding almost three times their capacity, according to UNHCR, which is calling for a new camp to be established.
Since January, at least 56,000 asylum-seekers have been registered. More than 6,000 arrived in Dadaab in October alone. Most of the arrivals are from Mogadishu, others are from the Lower Juba regions of Kismayo, Jamaame and Afmadow.
The overcrowding in the camps is also affecting food distribution points - designed for 90,000 people. "When there is a monthly food distribution it is extremely crowded," WFP spokesman, Peter Smerdon, told IRIN.
At present, Smerdon said, there is enough food to meet the increasing numbers of asylum-seekers but more funding is needed.
"There is a constant increase in the numbers and we are building that into our plans," he said. "If the influx continues at the rate it is going, we will start running low on food for the refugees from January."
Health teams are conducting continuous community mobilisation to prevent disease outbreaks, said a monitoring and evaluation officer with the German Agency for Technical Cooperation, Margaret Pacho.
"So far there have not been any disease outbreaks," Pacho said. "We have also managed to keep malnutrition within normal rates."
However, she said, there is a need for an additional health outpost and staff to help deal with the influx.
Skin diseases are prevalent among new refugees, some of whom are camping around UNHCR offices awaiting registration, she said.
The overcrowding in the camps is also increasing vulnerability. "As has been experienced in refugee camps the world over, congestion creates an unsafe environment for women and children," said UNICEF Kenya representative Olivia Yambi.
Meanwhile, UNHCR is working on a contingency plan in the event the influx continues at the same pace or accelerates.
"UNHCR and relevant UN agencies and partners have been liaising and meeting since the scale of the influx became apparent in October. Already a number of meetings have taken place and the initial stages of the contingency planning have been undertaken," said Emmanuel Nyabera, UNHCR spokesman.
Should conditions in Somalia deteriorate further, some 60,000 to 100,000 asylum-seekers may cross into Kenya in 2009, according to UNHCR estimates.
Although UNHCR and other agencies have been working to improve the general living conditions of the refugees in 2008, the needs are still huge and funds insufficient, said the communiqué.