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Refugees lament losses as fire razes market in Kenya's Dadaab camp

News Stories, 2 August 2012

© UNHCR/Y.Kuriowa
A shopkeeper tries to salvage the little that's left after a fire swept through the market in Dagahaley camp, Dadaab.

DADAAB, Kenya, August 2 (UNHCR) A devastating fire that razed a market in Kenya's Dadaab refugee complex last weekend has highlighted the need for better fire safety preparedness and response in the world's largest refugee camp.

The fire started on Sunday evening in the market of Dagahaley camp, one of five camps in the sprawling Dadaab refugee complex in north-eastern Kenya. None of the 124,000 mainly Somali refugees in Dagahaley was hurt, but 80 per cent of the market was destroyed. Some of neighbouring residential blocks were also damaged and looted as the residents fled.

The market had grown into a city within the camp over the last 20 years, with winding streets, narrow alleys and large, roofed interconnected bazaars. Almost anything was for sale in the market, from vegetables to mobile phones. Now most of this lies in ruins and ashes and many people have lost their property and means of livelihood.

Survivors tell UNHCR staff that on Sunday, people who had just sat down for their evening meal to break their Ramadan fast, rushed out of their houses when they heard shouts of fire. Others who had gone to the market for evening shopping were running away from the enormous flames, fanned by a strong breeze. The narrow streets became clogged with people, donkey carts, wheelbarrows and vehicles trying to escape.

Eyewitness Mohammed Issack describes the chaotic scene when he and other volunteers tried to fight the fire: "I was faced with extreme heat and almost suffocating blaze and smoke. I rushed to join a team of young Samaritans struggling to stop the fire, but it was too late! The fire was well armed, it managed to defeat us, ambushing and bombarding us with small ammunition consisting of exploding cosmetics, oil and petroleum products. Nothing could be done. Some people opened their shops to the public to take whatever they could instead of leaving everything to burn down, while others were just standing, watching their belongings turning into ashes."

People's shock and despair quickly turned to anger. A group of women among the on-lookers expressed what many of them felt: "This is even worse than what has happened recently, all the attacks and gunshots at night, the bomb blasts in daytime, the police retaliation! What kind of asylum right do we have to enjoy or to be proud of? And who is going to compensate us for this great loss, we have no government even to console us!"

Their anger also turned towards UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies, whose rescue efforts came too late to save most of the market.

Fafa Attidzah, who heads UNHCR's sub-office in Dadaab, acknowledged that the response could have been quicker and stronger, but explained that aid agencies are restricted by current challenges on the ground.

"The volatile security situation makes it impossible to monitor what is going on in the camps on a 24-hour basis. The fire started at night, when no agency staff were present in the camp," said Attidzah. "Also, the UNHCR fire engine vehicles were too small to deal with a fire of this magnitude. Another issue is that neither agency staff nor the refugees themselves have been adequately trained and drilled for a major fire situation."

The UN refugee agency and its partner agencies are assessing the damage and the impact of the fire on the community members. Those hardest hit will receive assistance to help them recover.

In close consultation with the refugee community, plans are underway to rebuild the Dagahaley market in a sensible and safe way, in strict accordance with Kenyan laws and building regulations, so that a similar catastrophe will not happen again.

UNHCR, its partners and the Kenyan authorities in Dadaab have also established a working group to put in place a more efficient and effective emergency response structure in case of a major fire emergency. There is also an urgent need to purchase a proper fire engine vehicle in Dadaab.

By Mans Nyberg, in Dadaab, Kenya




UNHCR country pages

The Nubians in Kenya

In the late 1880s, Nubians from Sudan were conscripted into the British army. The authorities induced them to stay in Kenya by granting them homesteads and issuing them British colonial passports. The Nubians named their settlement near Nairobi, Kibra, or "land of forest." In 1917, the British government formally declared the land a permanent settlement of the Nubians. Since independence, Kenyan Nubians have had difficulty getting access to ID cards, employment and higher education and have been limited in their travel. In recent years, a more flexible approach by the authorities has helped ease some of these restric¬tions and most adult Nubians have been confirmed as Kenyan citizens, but children still face problems in acquiring Kenyan citizenship.

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Somalia Emergency: Refugees move into Ifo Extension

The UN refugee agency has moved 4,700 Somali refugees from the outskirts of Kenya's Dadaab refugee complex into the Ifo Extension site since 25 July 2011. The ongoing relocation movement is transferring 1,500 people a day and the pace will soon increase to 2,500 to 3,000 people per day.

The refugees had arrived in recent weeks and months after fleeing drought and conflict in Somalia. They settled spontaneously on the edge of Ifo camp, one of three existing camps in the Dadaab complex, that has been overwhelmed by the steadily growing influx of refugees.

The new Ifo Extension site will provide tented accommodation to 90,000 refugees in the coming months. Latrines and water reservoirs have been constructed and are already in use by the families that have moved to this site.

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The three camps at Dadaab, which were designed for 90,000 people, now have a population of about 250,000 Somali civilians, making it one of the world's largest and most congested refugee sites. UNHCR fears tens of thousands more will arrive throughout 2009 in this remote corner of north-east Kenya as the situation in their troubled country deteriorates further.

Resources, such as food and water, have been stretched dangerously thin in the overcrowded camps, with sometimes 400 families sharing one tap. There is no room to erect additional tents and the new arrivals are forced to share already crowded shelters with other refugees.

In early 2009, the Kenyan government agreed to allocate more land at Dadaab to accommodate some 50,000 refugees. View photos showing conditions in Dadaab in December 2008.

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