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Devastating Crisis in the Horn of Africa

Severe drought and famine cause mass displacement and leave camps overflowing and overwhelmed.

A dire humanitarian crisis is rapidly unfolding in the Horn of Africa—a peninsula in the northeast of the continent. In an area already reeling from the effects of war in Somalia, a prolonged and severe drought has created famine conditions and left more than 13 million people in immediate need of assistance. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, approximately 320,000 Somalis have fled to Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and other countries since the beginning of this year. The refugee camp complex in Dadaab, Kenya—the largest in the world—now hosts a refugee population of over 460,000—more than four times the number of people the camps were originally intended to support.

The overwhelming majority of the new arrivals are women and children. Reports from various agencies indicate that malnutrition rates among the children are staggering: between 40 and 50 percent of Somali children arriving at camps in Kenya and Ethiopia are seriously malnourished. Other risks include sexual violence, with sexual attacks against women and girls common during their often weeks-long journeys from Somalia. As detailed in this report from the IRC, women and girls remain at high risk of assault and exploitation when they arrive in greatly overcrowded camps, where access to food, shelter and basic health care is limited.

Top 10 Steps to Protect the Most Vulnerable

In any crisis, there are a series of essential steps that must be taken to protect and assist displaced persons. As displacement in the Horn of Africa surges, the Women’s Refugee Commission reminds the humanitarian community and refugee-receiving countries of the Top 10 steps that must be taken to help protect the most vulnerable.

As noted in our Top 10 list of critical needs, special attention should be given to life-saving reproductive health services, particularly for survivors of sexual violence, pregnant women and newborns. The Minimal Initial Service Package (MISP) outlines the basic reproductive health standards that must be met at the start of an emergency.

Read the Reproductive Health Response in Crises Consortium statement on meeting the reproductive health needs of women and girls affected by the displacement in the Horn of Africa.


Given the pervasive hunger among the displaced, particularly the new arrivals, the humanitarian community must also act quickly to ensure refugees have safe access to the cooking fuel required to cook the food they are given once they arrive in Dadaab. Last summer, the Women’s Refugee Commission assessed the risks to refugee women and girls in Kenya when they go to collect firewood. We found that firewood is becoming harder and harder to find because of widespread deforestation and the large influx of displaced people over the last several years. Women and girls have to go deeper into the surrounding desert to find any available wood, which means they are at greater risk of sexual assault, rape and even murder. Tensions also run high with local communities, many of whom are in similarly desperate situations and are also dependent on scarce firewood to cook their food. All of these concerns have only become more intense with the arrival of more than 160,000 more people since our assessment. Find out more about their daily struggles in this blog post and photo essay from Dadaab and Kakuma camps in Kenya.

Following our trip to the region, the Women’s Refugee Commission and the World Food Programme produced a report addressing the challenges of obtaining cooking fuel in refugee camps in Kenya. Implementation of our recommendations is all the more critical as newly arrived refugees struggle to cook their food and even more pressure is put on a highly stressed environment. We issued guidance on cooking fuel needs and the humanitarian response in the Horn of Africa.


Read a Huffington Post article by executive director Sarah Costa on violence against women and girls in the Horn of Africa.

Read a Huffington Post piece by Women's Refugee Commission Board members Samuel Witten and Kristin Wells on why the world needs to act now.


How you can help

In this crisis, millions of people urgently need food and the fuel to cook it, a safe place to sleep, clean water and basic health care. You can help by donating to organizations that are working around the clock to help. These include our parent organization, the International Rescue Committee, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Programme.

To support the Women’s Refugee Commission’s advocacy work on behalf of the most vulnerable refugees in the Horn of Africa, please donate here.