A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
Every few minutes, a gust of wind blows, forcing people to screw up their faces in pain against the fierce sand-dust that tears into their eyes, and forces its way into their mouths, ears and noses. Only the large scarves traditionally worn by women for modesty offer any protection against the dust which covers everything in a thick layer of yellowish brown in a few seconds.
Around 1,000 Somali refugees arrive each day at this camp, Hiloweyn, in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia, just a few kilometres from the border with Somalia. They’ve been moved here from a transit site about an hour’s drive away. Many have walked for days by foot. They’re weak and nearly everyone is malnourished.
Their new home is a dusty, rocky and windy spot. It might seem the last place on earth that anyone would want to stay. But for these refugees, who have fled extreme drought, famine and conflict, for now at least, it’s much better than what they left back home in Somalia.
Still better than home
50-year-old widow Habiba Abdullahi left her home in Dinsor, Baidoa region, walking for eight days with her son, a farmer, and his family. She told me that they used to own nearly 20 cows but that they had all died in the drought. There had been almost no rain over the past three years, she said, and it was impossible to grow crops. Their decision to leave Somalia, she said, was a decision to leave for good – as there was “nothing left for us to go back for.”
“We had no rains and no food. We feared for our lives because of the drought. We were living in unstable conditions. We decided we had to leave after the farmland dried up, and our few animals died. There was nothing for us. Life and our survival was becoming fragile and things looked fatal.”
Daily life here is difficult. Families are given a tent which is hot in the day and cold at night; there is no vegetation providing any precious shade, apart from some small shrubby, thorny bushes.
Oxfam is helping to provide clean drinking water for the refugees. But as the camp swells in size and has been created from nothing, water is still rationed and not available 24 hours a day.
“I cannot predict how long we will stay here. But I think it will be for the rest of my life,” Habiba told me. “Whatever conditions are like, even though things are very harsh here, we have no option. It’s still better for us to live here than back home.”
“There were no schools back there where we lived. There was persistent drought and nothing to eat. The crops had all dried up. Our animals had died. We need to begin a new life here and I think it will be a better life for my grandchildren.”
Looking for food and security
30-year-old Nishe Hussein, a mother of four, left her home in Lug. She used to sell tea at a hotel. But the night it was bombed, and two people were killed, she decided that there was no future for her in Somalia.
“We came here looking for food. If the food rations we get now improves, I will never go back to Somalia, because there is lawlessness and no government. I hope that now we are here, my children can go to school and get an education.”
Mother of two, Sarura Mohammad Ibrahim, 24, from Dinsor, Baidoa, came to Ethiopia while she was heavily pregnant, travelling by donkey cart. She has now sold the donkey and cart and runs this small shop. She says she has no intention of returning to Somalia and that Ethiopia offers a better future for her and her family.
“Security is better here; also we have food and shelter provided by humanitarian organisations. Back in Somalia, we don’t have those things.”
What Oxfam is doing
Oxfam is providing clean water, building latrines and giving hygiene training for 10,000 people who are currently in the camp. It’s a race against time to install water tanks and tap stands so people can access water as the camp swells in size.
There is a serious risk of disease spreading in the camps. And providing clean water, soap and toilets is essential to prevent that from happening.
“Oxfam is responding to this emergency crisis now by providing clean water and sanitation for people, which will save lives but it also really improves the dignity of people,” said Oxfam GB’s Chief Executive, Barbara Stocking.
“The work that we are doing isn’t going to be over very quickly, though; it will take months of work and we really would appreciate more funds coming in. It’s not also just the saving lives now that is the issue, but we need to work in the long term so people develop their own resilience and can cope with the sort of disasters that face them such as when drought comes – so there’s a real need to keep this work going in the whole region to make sure that we don’t have these sorts of crises in the future; so there will be a need for funds in the long term as well.”
Oxfam has been working in the camp for the last few weeks. It’s one of four in Dollo Ado, which is now sheltering more than 100,000 Somali refugees.
We are aiming to help 3.5 million people across Somalia, southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya – areas that are all affected by the severe drought.
While aid is reaching affected communities, the worry is that the situation is worsening. Predictions of lower-than-normal rains in the coming months could mean that this emergency continues well into 2012. People are going to need our help for months to come.