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Mothers sit with their children in a compound for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Somali border town of Dhobley on August 11, 2011, 100 km from Dadaab refugee complex. (PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images)
Mothers sit with their children in a compound for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Somali border town of Dhobley on August 11, 2011, 100 km from Dadaab refugee complex. (PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images)

Globe Editorial

Security as well as food needed for Somalia's famine refugees Add to ...

It is cruel enough that thousands of Somalis are forced to flee the worst famine in 60 years, losing children to disease and starvation along the dusty route out of their homeland. But those refugees who do finally reach a “safe haven” in Kenya must confront one final, agonizing humiliation: sexual attacks by armed militants, soldiers and bandits.

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Surely these refugees deserve not just food and water, but safety in Dadaab, the United Nations-run camps in Kenya. More than 80 per cent of those arriving are women. In June, the International Rescue Committee saw a fourfold increase in attacks involving sexual violence at the camps, and that rate doubled again last month.

The Kenyan government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees must work together to resolve this problem. Built for 90,000, the Dadaab camps house 400,000 refugees, with thousands more waiting to be admitted. Dadaab is now Kenya’s third biggest “city,” located in a remote corner of the country close to the Somali border.

While it is Kenya’s job to keep the refugees safe, the UN could earmark special funds to pay for more Kenyan police officers in Dadaab and the surrounding area. More UN protection officers would also help. The UN could offer to resettle Somali refugees as leverage to extract greater co-operation from the Kenyan government, which has refused to allow an overspill camp for 40,000 to open, arguing the refugees should be cared for in Somalia.

Already, 29,000 Somali children have died in the last 90 days, and more 3.9 million people are at risk of starvation. The UN has made an urgent appeal for $2.4-billion, but has received only $1.1-billion in pledges.

The famine exacerbates an already precarious situation. Dadaab opened 20 years ago when Somalis first began fleeing their war-torn country. Kenya has never permitted the refugees to leave the camps, concerned about security and links with the militant group al-Shabab, which controls parts of Somalia and has links to al-Qaeda.

While these issues require long-term solutions, the world has a duty to do far more than it has yet offered in response to the famine. At the very least, the UN can work with Kenyan officials to reduce the threat of refugees being raped. Providing families with fuel and fuel-efficient stoves is an effective way to keep women safer, as they would not have to leave the camps to search for firewood, which puts them at risk of attacks from criminals hiding in the bush. Secure women-only and children-only tents are also helpful, as are watch groups to patrol the camps. “We have to learn from history and understand how targeted security measures can help the camps,” notes James Milner, a Carleton University professor and refugee specialist.

Of course, the best solution would be durable peace in Somalia and an end to the cycle of drought in the Horn of Africa. But until that happens, the safety of refugees cannot be ignored. Women and children who have walked for days in search of sustenance should not have to worry about being sexually assaulted once they reach UN camps.

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