Nairobi: Thousands of Somalis fleeing drought, famine and war have started moving into a new extension of the world`s largest refugee camp in Kenya, which is increasingly concerned about bearing the brunt of the Horn of Africa crisis.
About 1,500 Somali refugees are now crossing into Kenya each day but there is no room for them in the congested Dadaab camp, which was declared full in 2008.
Instead, 65,000 refugees have been forced to "self-settle" in cardboard and plastic shelters on flood-prone land outside the camp.
"By the end of today, we will have moved around 3,000 people already to the extension," a UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesman Emmanuel Nyabera told AlertNet, a news site run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"As an emergency measure, we are using tents," said Badu Katelo, Acting Commissioner for Refugee Affairs in the Ministry of State for Immigration and Registration of Persons.
"Later, maybe, we will replace the tents with housing structures."
The Kenyan government opened Dadaab camp, designed for 90,000 refugees, in 1991 as a temporary solution to the civil war across the border. But 20 years on, it hosts 440,000 refugees with no end in sight to the conflict.
The government fears Dadaab is becoming a permanent settlement. Last year, it suspended construction of a half-built extension for 80,000 people, known as Ifo 2, citing security concerns.
With the declaration of famine in Somalia earlier this month, Kenya came under international pressure to open Ifo 2 given that it has mud brick houses, latrines, water distribution points, health facilities and schools which are not being used.
A row broke out within the Kenyan government, with the immigration ministry supporting the opening of the extension, while internal security officials opposed it.
Nyabera and Katelo said the issue has been resolved following Prime Minister Raila Odinga`s announcement on July 14 that Ifo 2 should be opened.
"It was announced by the prime minister in public and that`s it. We immediately called UNHCR to move in and resettle people," said Katelo.
Nyabera said refugees will start moving into the houses in Ifo 2 "in the next few days”.
"For the permanent structures, we`re just finalising the whole construction and then we`ll start moving the most vulnerable people down there," he said.
Government spokesman Alfred Mutua remained cautious.
"We expect them to move in the next few days," he told AlertNet while warning that the opening of Ifo 2 would do little to end the refugee crisis.
"They`ll keep coming to half a million people. It means you have to open another 10 camps. It`s ridiculous and preposterous," he said.
"We want food delivered in Somalia."
The Kenyan government has repeatedly called for camps to be set up to feed people inside Somalia, instead of expanding Dadaab.
"Because we have delayed opening the camp, at least people are being fed in Somalia and we like that."
The UN World Food Program said it cannot access 2.2 million hungry people in rebel-controlled territory in southern Somalia.