By Daniel Ooko
NAIROBI, June 20 (Xinhua) -- As the world marks the refugee day on Saturday, three aid agencies say despite the improved perception of refugees in some countries of the Eastern Africa region, refugees in other countries of the region still face hostility and neglect.
The agencies Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the Refugee Consortium of Kenya (RCK) say mostof the refugees are denied their fundamental human rights and experience rejection and discrimination.
"Societies and governments tend to perceive refugees as a problem. But, we need to see that behind the large numbers are human beings like you and me," Frido Pflueger, Director of the Nairobi-based JRS/Eastern Africa said.
"They have been uprooted from their countries by conflict, persecution or violence and JRS has seen their courage and resilience as they struggle for a better future," Pflueger told Xinhua.
The IRC and RCK say with Kenya now home to about 400,000 refugees, the human needs behind this staggering statistic must not be forgotten this World Refugee Day -- especially at a time when the global economic crisis threatens to slash humanitarian aid budgets.
"Throughout Kenya -- in sprawling camps like Dadaab and Kakuma, as well as in urban centers like Nairobi -- hundreds of thousands of refugees are struggling day-to-day without adequate basics such as food, water, healthcare and sanitation," says Kellie Leeson, who manages the IRC's programs in Kenya.
"The Kenyan government and the international community must step up and do more to ensure that these people's needs are met, both on World Refugee Day and beyond," adds Leeson.
The agencies' plea came as security situation in neighboring Somalia is worsening, prompting large numbers of civilians to fleein to Kenya, where facilities to host them are stretched to bursting point, raising fears of a major refugee crisis.
Dadaab in eastern Kenya, is home to an estimated 280,000 mainly Somali refugees, triple its designated capacity. Its Dagahaley, Hagadera and Ifo camps together comprise one of the largest refugee sites in the world.
Some critics said delays by the Kenyan government in freeing upland to build a fourth site mean Dadaab is massively congested with inadequate space for sanitary facilities, creating ideal conditions for diseases such as cholera to fester.
"We have no hope to go back to Somalia because of the civil war, but life here in Dadaab is very difficult," says Jama Garane, a young male Somali refugee who has been living in Dadaab for the past 17 years.
"While there's been an increase in population, the services provided to us have not kept pace and life is very harsh."
The lack of land is also forcing new arrivals to share compounds with relatives or construct makeshift shelters out of little more than sticks, rags and plastic sheeting.
"During the heavy rains, those families who don't have a proper house get soaked through and develop health problems," says refugee leader Kassim Sheik Mohammud. "Some of us have lived here for 18 years. We are not expecting luxury, just the basics."
Pflueger urges governments to create an environment conducive to the reception and integration of refugees.
Steps, he says, should be taken to grant them safety and protection, to ensure that their needs are addressed and durable solutions found.
JRS also calls on citizens to welcome refugees with a spirit of solidarity and respect instead of fearing or rejecting them.
"Refugees are not criminals. They are unfortunate victims of circumstances beyond their control which have forced them to flee, leaving everything behind. Many are isolated and without support once they arrive. Instead of stigmatizing them we should welcome them," says JRS worker Stephen Kuteesa.
In many cases, refugees are subject to exploitation and abuse, and their situation is aggravated by the lack of networks for social support, problems with languages and unfamiliarity with the local customs.
Women and children, who make up 80 percent of the refugee population, are most affected, and are particularly vulnerable.
Positive examples across East Africa give reason to hope that the perception and reception of refugees has improved.
In 2006 Uganda adopted a Refugee Act that accords refugees all the rights stipulated in the UN and African Union conventions, including freedom of movement and the right to work.
For years, Uganda has allocated land to Sudanese refugees in the north, instead of pursuing a strict policy of encampment.
However, the agencies say difficulties remain in many countries where the needs of refugees and other forcibly displaced people are not being met.
Kakuma refugee camp in north-western Kenya which currently hosts a population of 42,000 refugees is an example for a protracted refugee situation.
About 10 percent of the refugees in Kakuma have lived in the camp for over 10 years, some longer than 15 with no perspective and no hope of a durable solution. This causes dependency and problems with the local community.
Increased numbers of refugees move to urban centers, seeking employment and a better future.
Of the over 35,000 refugees and asylum seekers currently living in Nairobi only those who are economically independent are officially permitted by the government.
Many have to cope without material assistance and legal protection. They are vulnerable to police arrests and often face hostility from the local population.
"How human a society is can be measured by how it treats its weaker members. We are all part of one humanity and we need to respect each others dignity. How do we treat those who have lost everything? If we don't treat them with respect, who will?" wonders Pflueger.
Newly arrived Somali refugees, averaging about 7,000 a month this year, also face extra problems caused by the long, often exhausting journey from Somalia.
Kenya's closure of its Somali border in January 2007 did little to stem the tide. "My two boys are here at the hospital because they are very sick," says Halima Ahmed Abdi, recently arrived from Baidoa in southern Somalia.
"They were not like this before the journey from Somalia, but it was tiring and since they have been in the camp they have had serious diarrhea and lost a lot of weight. I'm very worried."
Sadly, the IRC and RCK believe such human stories will not improve until more aid is provided, as existing funding for humanitarian agencies is stretched to the limit.
"All refugees in Kenya face numerous challenges -- from those living in overcrowded camps like Dadaab, to those in urban areas," says Judy Wakahiu, Executive Director with RCK.
"On World Refugee Day, we must remember that these are people who have been forced -- through no fault of their own -- to flee conflict or persecution in their home country and their rights and needs must be respected."
IRC is providing healthcare services in Dadaab as well as water and sanitation services in Kakuma camp, northwestern Kenya.
"The high refugee population has made it extremely challenging to deliver services," Leeson said. "Water has been a really big challenge as well as provision of adequate latrines."