Canadian aid worker recounts desperation in refugee camp after East Africa visit
A Canadian humanitarian worker who recently visited a major refugee camp in East Africa hopes the United Nations’ declaration of famine in Somalia spurs support for relief efforts in the drought-plagued region.
“Whether it’s a famine or a food crisis, at the end of the day, doesn’t make a huge difference because people are literally starving to death and help was as much needed yesterday as it is today,” said Jessie Thomson, emergency response program manager with the aid organization Care Canada.
“But I think that the declaration of famine will hopefully move international donors to act and really commit funds to the response which I think is really important”¦.,” she told the Straight by phone from Ottawa today (July 21).
The UN yesterday declared that famine exists in two southern regions of Somalia amid a food crisis that aid agencies say has affected 11 million people across eastern Africa.
In Canada, Care and four other humanitarian groups that have jointly renewed a plea for donations to support relief efforts in the region following the UN declaration. Other members of the so-called Humanitarian Coalition are Oxfam Canada, Oxfam-Québec, Plan Canada, and Save the Children. The UN is also urging international donors to pledge support, saying its agencies are about $800 million short of the $1.6 billion needed to address the crisis.
“With a drought, and a famine as we now have in certain parts of Somalia, we can prevent further loss of life by intervening now, intervening well. And so for me I think that that’s really, really important because if we mobilize resources and we mobilize an effective response we really, truly can save lives and prevent further suffering from happening,” Thomson said.
Thomson returned to Canada this week after visiting the Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya, which hosts around 385,000 people. The camps there have swelled with people traveling across the border from neighbouring Somalia. There were around 20,000 new arrivals in the last two weeks of June, compared with an average of around 9,000 per month in 2010, she said.
Thomson said she visited Dadaab to help the Care operation there “get scaled up”¦to really meet the scale of the needs.” The international organization is working across the region to address the need for food, water, health care, and education.
Thomson said almost all of the tens of thousands of refugees who have arrived in Dadaab since January are from Somalia. She said she heard stories of desperation from the refugees she met, including women with young children who had traveled for weeks by foot to arrive there. She also said she spoke with a family who had carried the body of a child who died on the journey to Dadaab for a proper burial.
“People had made an incredible journey just to get to Kenya and really said, ”˜You know, we left because it was no longer possible for us to stay.’ They’d lost their livestock. They’d lost their livelihoods, so there wasn’t food, there wasn’t enough water. And the security situation was such that they knew it wasn’t going to get any better,” Thomson said.
“In the months ahead it will be very, very essential that we meet the immediate life-saving needs of people that have been affected. That’s about providing water. It’s about nutritional support for the chronically malnourished. It’s also about interventions to help decrease the vulnerability of families.”