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Somali refugees' path of hardship

Which is better: the camps, the Nairobi slums, or the Mogadishu violence?

NAIROBI, Kenya — “Life in Somalia is not life, it is full of bullets; there is no life in Somalia,” said 70-year-old Maryam. Before she fled to Kenya from her home in Mogadishu’s Bakara Market, Maryam's eldest daughter was shot to death and her son was hit in the jaw with shrapnel.

Maryam's route to Nairobi included 18 months in Dagahaley camp, one of three dust-blown refugee settlements of sticks and plastic sheeting that are home to more than a quarter of a million Somalis. The settlements are the largest concentration of refugees anywhere in the world.

“In the camps there are no bullets,” Maryam said, “but life is hard.”

Others would rather brave the bullets. Mohamed, a 20-year-old Somali man who came to Nairobi this month from another of the refugee camps, is unsparing in his criticism of the settlements. “Life is better in Somalia than in Ifo camp," he said. "Only the security is better; the conditions are terrible.”

As one human rights activist put it, “The refugees are coming from nothing to nothing, in a place where there is nothing.”

The three Somali camps were designed for 90,000 refugees. But by the end of this year, they are expected to house four times that number. In August 2008, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that the camps, around Dadaab town in northeastern Kenya, were full. The escalating violence in Somalia has meant that in the past year 165 people a day fled to the camps.

At least 13 percent of the refugees in the camps are malnourished. Disease outbreaks are common. In February, cholera struck.

Aid groups are warning of a looming catastrophe in the camps. Oxfam recently described a possible humanitarian emergency, the product of insufficient funding, overcrowding and water shortages. UNHCR has appealed to donors for $92 million for the camps around Dadaab and has asked for more land to be allocated to refugees.

For Somali refugees outside the settlement camps, run-ins with the Kenyan police can have serious consequences. Kenya's predatory national police force — which is regularly accused of corruption, brutality and murder — treats Somali refugees found outside the camps as fair game. The police have extorted money and, according to a report published March 30 by New York-based Human Rights Watch, have forcibly deported “hundreds, possibly thousands” of refugees since the border was shut.

The police also prevent Somali refugees from leaving the squalid camps in the country's parched northeast. In some cases, refugees have been beaten, tortured and raped. In many cases, new arrivals have been forced to pay about $50 to avoid deportation and be allowed to reach the camps.