Al Jazeera gains access to border town where thousands facing starvation are trying to get to Kenya.
The UN World Food Programme would welcome any assistance from the hardline Muslim group al-Shabab to help avert a humanitarian disaster in the Horn of Africa, a spokesman has told Al Jazeera.
Al-Shabab has already lifted a ban on humanitarian agencies supplying food aid to millions of citizens amid one of the region’s worst droughts in 60 years.
According to the World Food Programme, the number of people in the Horn of Africa who need food assistance is expected to rise toabout 10 million in coming weeks, as the drought takes its toll.
David Orr from the World World Food Programme told Al Jazeera that 1,000 refugee families a day from Somalia were flooding into the Kenyan town of Dabaab.
“We’re assisting thousands of Somali refugees in the Dabaab camps, but if we need to enter south Somalia, we need to work with al-Shabab,” said Orr.
“We’re not operating in the al-Shabab areas of the south, which is a conflict zone, but if we get the security clearance from the United Nations and our donor approvals, then we’re prepared to go.”
Orr’s comments are the strongest indication yet by the UN World Food Programme that it is ready to work with al-Shabab since the agency was forced to pull out of southern Somalia in 2010 because of threats made against its staff by the group.
Al-Shabab, which is connected to al-Qaeda networks in Africa and the Gulf, controls the majority of Somalia, including around half of the capital, Mogadishu.
In the past, they have said food aid creates dependency, but they have also used aid for themselves and charged foreign organisations high fees to operate.
The United Nations says 2.8 million people in Somalia need emergency aid and that around one fourth of the entire population has been displaced – either internally or as refugees leaving the country – as a result of hunger and a long-running civil war. In the worst-hit areas, one in three children is suffering from malnutrition.
Local analysts in Somalia said al-Shabab lifted the ban on foreign aid organisations to generate money to fund their war effort, by charging those groups a registration fee.
Since al-Shabab banned foreign aid, an increasing number of Somalis have been fleeing into government-controlled territory seeking assistance, to al-Shabab’s apparent dismay.
Hundreds of thousands of people continue to flee the drought, walking for days in search of food and water.
The World Food Programme says one in five refugees entering Kenya from southern Somalia is suffering from malnutrition and related complications such as anaemia.
“The children are presenting with skin complications where their skin is peeling off mainly due to deficiency in micro-nutrients,” said Dr Milhia Abdul Kader from the United Nations said.
“Dabaab is a town of 70,000 people, but there are 370,000 refugees who have poured in from southern Somalia … This drought is affecting the entire Horn of Africa,” said Ebrahim Moosa, an aid worker based in Dabaab for the UK-based charity Ummah Welfare Trust.
“Most families who come to us are absolutely desperate, and many parents have had to leave behind their malnourished child, because they have no choice due to their desperate situation,” said Moosa.
Most of the arrivals to the camps are women and very young children, many of whom are in very bad physical condition, Al Jazeera’s Azad Essa, reporting from Dadaab, said.
“Every morning hundreds turn up at the registration sites, where they hope to get documented and receive some basic essentials,” he said.
“But the process is long and people are waiting for days to complete registration and access food, having already walked for days to get here.”