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World’s biggest refugee camp an emergency in itself

“No, Liverpool are no good. Manchester 3, Liverpool 1. Do you know Hernandez?” And so we go on, pointing at the board of flags of the world and naming footballers from each country.

We’re stood in one of Save the Children’s Child Friendly Spaces in Dagahaley camp, one of three refugee camps around Dadaab, Kenya set up in the early 1990s to house Somali refugees that now comprises the largest concentration of refugees in the world.

This was a Saturday children’s club, a happy and safe distraction for children far from their homes. Rapidly exhausting my own knowledge of footballers, we get to where these two brothers, Abdifatah and Hanad, came from. They were both born in Somalia, they say, their fingers jutting at the blue flag with the white star that looks too neat, too complete to represent the war-stricken country whose border is just 90 km away.

Abdifatah and Hanad made the long journey years ago – they don’t know how many – and they now say their homes are here. “We want to stay here. Here there is education,” says Hanad, the older, 8 year old brother. So here they live, along with another 155,000 children in these three camps and the growing sprawl of overflow sites beyond them.

Life-threatening journey

The journey here is not something any child should have to face. From my short time here, I’ve heard of children dying on the long journey for want of food or water. Families harassed and separated at barricades manned by armed groups. A young child was mauled to death by a hyena as her siblings looked on.

I simply can’t imagine the emotional legacy such a horrific experience would leave.

Once these children have made the arduous journey to the Kenyan border, as asylum seekers they have a right — innate as well as earned — to protection and assistance. But these rights are not being respected. First they have to travel the inhospitable 90 km from the border. And when they arrive the camps are still dangerous places: for instance, children are at risk of exploitation as they wait to be registered to receive food and essential services.

Child Friendly Spaces, like the one where I met Abdifatah and Harun, are part of Save the Children’s efforts to make the lives of refugee children that little bit more normal. They are places where the children can play, develop, and learn to preserve their childhood.

Ten-fold increase in number of people arriving compared to last year

But our efforts have to be redoubled. Drought and ongoing conflict are forcing more and more people to flee to Dadaab. Last year, 130 people were arriving each day. At the beginning of June it was 250 a day.

Now it’s 1,300 people — two thirds of them children — arriving at Dadaab each day, a ten-fold increase from last year. The new influx is overwhelming the existing structures and increasing the risks to children.

While the schools in Dagahaley, one of the three camps in Dadaab, are already overflowing with 125 pupils per teacher, the new children who have arrived are unoccupied and underfed in the growing sites in the outskirts beyond the camps.

Extension site planned

The Kenyan Minister for Immigration said last week that the extension site, known as Ifo II, that has already been prepared with water points, schools, and health centres, should be used to relieve the pressure on the existing camps, which are now four times their original size and capacity.

Gaining approval for this long-awaited movement of refugees to Ifo II would be great step for making life safer and happier for children in Dadaab.

It would be a recognition that Dadaab is not just a disastrous spin off from the situation in neighbouring Somalia: it’s also an emergency in itself.

Find out how we’re helping families affected by the drought in East Africa

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