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Ethiopia: News from the world’s second biggest refugee camp

I’m told that the road we set out on from Dollo Ado town was originally built by the Italians to link Addis Ababa to Mogadishu. Today, we’re not bound for Mogadishu but inland from the Somalia border to the refugee camps which are currently home to over 170,000 Somalians, forced to leave their country by drought and conflict.

The UN Refugee Agency has just reported that Dollo Ado is now the world’s second biggest refugee camp complex. Numbers of new arrivals have slowed, but people do continue to arrive and the newest camp, which opened in November last year, is now full.

There are now plans to create a sixth camp. The UN says that the cost of opening the new camp, setting up basic services and infrastructure – including medical, education and warehousing facilities – is more than £3.1 million.

Save the Children has handed over the management of primary school education in the camps to the Ethiopian Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), but continues to run pre-school education centres that provide vital time and space for children aged 3-6 years to interact with other children, learn and play. The centres also mean that parents can be assured their children are safe while they go about building their lives in the refugee camps.

Abdi Hussein in Bokolmayo camp

In Bokolmayo camp, I met Abdi Hussein, a member of the Parent Teacher Association at Save the Children’s Early Childhood Care and Development pre-school and child-friendly space. He is also what our team call a ‘mobiliser’, who walks around the camp with a megaphone calling to parents to bring their children to the pre-school.

Girls do traditional Somali dancing in Save the Children's pre-school in Bokolmayo refugee camp

Abdi has eight children and his youngest come to the pre-school. He told me: ‘The children stay here and they like it and I know it is very important for them. They can stay here while we have business to do at home. We are really happy with the activities.’

Worn out education tents in Helewyn refugee camp, Dollo Ado
New permanent education structures in Bokolmayo refugee camp, Dollo Ado

Our staff, too, know how important this pre-school education is. Nesra, who works for Save the Children at Bokolmayo camp, tells me: ‘The activities help the children’s development – cognitively, mentally, physically and even socially.

‘You find some children who will not play with the other children, and then we support them and give them opportunities to play and they become happier to play with others.

‘It is a good place and a good opportunity for us to meet the needs of the children. And also it is a safe area. It creates equality too – there is gender balance between the girls and boys.

‘We also have school feeding, which is important – they may not get something to eat in their home but when they come here we provide food for them.’

Sadly, as with the camps themselves, these services are oversubscribed. Save the Children is running 23 pre-school and child-friendly space centres across the five camps but these only provide for 20% of the children aged 3-6 years old that live there.

One of the biggest challenges is the building facilities themselves. Originally, the classes and play sessions were housed in large tents, but these are only designed to last for six months. Some are now over a year old and the wind, dust and rain have clearly taken their toll.

Save the Children is in the process of upgrading these facilities to semi-permanent or permanent structures which are safer, cooler, lighter and will last a lot longer than the canvas tents.

Listen to my audioboos from Bokolmayo camp.

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