|About 1,700 Somalis arrive daily in southeast Ethiopia and hundreds more in neighbouring Kenya [Reuters]
The plight of thousands of Somalis devastated by a harsh drought and forced to flee to neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya is the world's most urgent humanitarian tragedy, the head of the UN refugee agency has said.
Antonio Guterres, who heads the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), made the comments on Friday after visiting a camp hosting Somalis who fled into Ethiopia.
"My main objective is to appeal to the international community to engage more actively in support of the Somali population that is suffering so much," Guterres said.
Thousands of other Somalis have fled into neighbouring Kenya in recent weeks and many have died of starvation due to one of the region's worst drought in decades.
The UNHCR has appealed for $136.3m to help prevent the humanitarian catastrophe from worsening.
Somalia has been the worst affected country in the drought-hit Horn of Africa region owing to the persistent violence since a civil war erupted there two decades ago.
About 1,700 Somalis are arriving daily in southeast Ethiopia, while in neighbouring Kenya about 1,400 each day reach the overcrowded Dadaab refugee camp, according to the UNHCR.
"2011 has been the year of all crises, but I think that in Somalia we can find the worst humanitarian disaster of this year," Guterres said.
Guterres's comments came as the UN children fund (UNICEF) estimated that over two million young children in the Horn of Africa are malnourished and in need of urgent life-saving actions.
Half a million of those children are facing imminent life-threatening conditions, with long lasting consequences to their physical and mental development, said the agency.
This crisis is being called the worst for 50 years in a region prone to severe drought. The countries most seriously affected are Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Djibouti.
Global acute malnutrition rates in Northern Kenya are now above 25 per cent with records reaching as high as nearly 40 per cent in the Turkana district.
UNICEF estimates a total of 10 million people are already in need of humanitarian assistance.
UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming said in Geneva that many of the Somalis fleeing their country had died on the way, but could not give figures.
"Many people are dying en route from what we hear," she said.
Guterres said hunger and disease had claimed the lives of children as their families fled to seek relief in Ethiopia.
"I listened to mothers telling us that they've lost their children on the way. Doctors said that they have no hope to rescue some of their patients because they are already condemned because they came too late to safety."