MELKADIDA CAMP, Ethiopia (AP) — Some walked for days to escape the threat of Africa's deadliest Islamic extremist group and the desperation of drought. But the problems for more than 200,000 Somali refugees are far from over.
Now huddled in five sprawling camps in Ethiopia, the refugees face ration cuts in the coming months unless more international support arrives. Their plight is often overlooked in a region where hunger and conflict in Somalia and South Sudan put millions at risk.
"The projection we have is that our already reduced aid handout for these Somali refugees is sustainable only up to March 2018," Edward Moyo with the World Food Program told The Associated Press during a visit to one of the camps. "How are we going to explain to a pregnant mother who has a number of other children that we are going to cut her ration beyond what she's already going through?"
In nutrition centers across the camp that is home to nearly 40,000 refugees, health workers say they are seeing a growing number of Somali children with malnutrition. And yet the number of new arrivals from Somalia continues to grow, at a rate of as high as 1,000 a day.
The parched landscape, dotted with refugee shelters made of bamboo and corrugated metal, leaves no possibility for the refugees to attempt feeding themselves by other means.
"I fled Somalia fearing al-Shabab militants and the severe drought there," said 37-year-old Rukia Mohammed Osman, a mother of eight children who fled the Gedo region of Somalia.
"My husband is a disabled person so I had no choice but to leave," she said, covering the face of her playful but malnourished 9-month-old child with a bright red scarf. "The aid we are receiving here is not enough. ... We are getting hungry."
WFP is appealing for $27 million to support 650,000 refugees from across the region who now live in Ethiopia camps.
"Refugees are currently receiving only 80 percent of their entitlement," said Leighla Bowers, the U.N. agency's head of communications in Ethiopia. "They will be receiving even less across the entire country and the majority of them will be suffering from that unless more resources are made available."
Aid groups have said Somalia is experiencing its worst drought in seven years, and many of the refugees are arriving in Ethiopia from the Bay, Gedo and Middle Juba regions. It is an echo of Somalia's devastating famine in 2011 that claimed the lives of 250,000 and sent many more into neighboring countries. This time, aid groups say, the response has avoided that kind of death toll.
On a visit to the region this week, U.N. refugee chief Filippo Grandi acknowledged the challenge of raising money for humanitarian crises on the world's poorest continent.
"It is very difficult to fund programs in Africa. I'm not ashamed to say it," Grandi told reporters, saying he fights all the time for more aid.
Ethiopia, which hosts one of the highest numbers of refugees in Africa, is also experiencing a severe drought and more than 5 million Ethiopians are food insecure. But it has been praised for welcoming the thousands fleeing Somalia and elsewhere and for recently announced plans to absorb the refugees into local communities.
Many understand that the traumatized arrivals had little choice but to flee.
"If I stayed in Somalia, I may be forced to join al-Shabab militants," said 16-year-old Yusuf Abdurahman, standing at an edge of a football pitch inside the camp where he was playing with his friends. "I want to be a math teacher. That's my plan, not to join the militants."