When Somali refugee Madina Ali escaped harsh drought and famine in Somalia, she hoped to find a better life in Ethiopia’s Dolo Ado camp.
But her son’s health has deteriorated since arriving over two months ago, and she is worried it will only get worse.
“Since we came here, he keeps getting sick every three days,” she said, cradling her frail nine-year old son, Ibrahim Abdirahman.
“When he falls sick he starts vomiting, and then he gets diarrhea. He doesn’t eat properly, and in this place there is no milk, there is no sugar,” she added.
Aid workers say malnutrition rates among children under five at the Dolo Ado camp are alarming.
“Malnutrition rates are still very high ─ this is still an emergency situation,” said Voitek Asztabski, emergency coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the camp.
“It’s not over, and it could continue for several months before we reach the control level,” Asztabski added.
Over 50 percent of children in Dolo Ado’s Hilaweyn camp and nearly half of all children in Kobe camp are suffering from malnutrition, according to a preliminary health survey from the United Nations refugee agency.
The World Health Organization says conditions are “critical” when the rate is above 15 percent.
Severe drought, famine and conflict forced 300,000 people to flee Somalia this year, according to U.N. figures.
Many have streamed into Ethiopia, which continues to receive hundreds of refugees every day as fighting rages between al-Qaeada-linked Shabaab insurgents, government troops and regional armies.
Poor sanitation and hygiene, overcrowding and meager food intake mean malnutrition rates have not improved since the height of the influx of new refugees in July, when up to 2,000 were arriving every day.
Conditions are worse in the transit center, where some refugees are forced to stay for months because construction of a new camp is delayed.
“The living conditions are appalling, there is not enough shelter, there is not enough food, there is not enough water,” Asztabski said.
Some refugees are selling their basic food rations for other goods they need, or to swap wheat provided for the rice or pasta many prefer.
“The refugees are selling part of their food to have access to other commodities, to other goods, things like clothes and types of foods that they want,” said Ted Chaiban, U.N. children’s agency country director.
The bustling markets in the camp are lined with stalls offering sacks of wheat and rice, as well as packs of a special food supplement for children.
Fartoum Iman Ibrahim admits she sells part of her food ration, which earns her about 12 dollars per week.
“If I get a sack of wheat, I sell half of it. I buy clothes, shoes and milk,” she said, standing outside her tent under the scorching midday sun.
She said her child would rather drink milk than eat wheat and said she would rather get spaghetti, rice, sugar and oil.
“The children are suffering from lack of milk,” she added, holding her one-year old son.
U.N. agencies visited the camp this month to try to combat the high malnutrition rates, but World Food Program country director Abdou Dieng admitted that even if different foods are introduced, those too might be sold.
“We expect that if we give them rice, then we may find the rice in the market,” Dieng said.
However, despite poor nutrition levels, mortality rates have plummeted in recent months.
Deaths among children were above emergency levels in July, with 4 deaths per 10,000 people, but have decreased to below one, according to MSF.
UNICEF hopes to increase health services including reaching out to “individual households so that they are encouraged to come in when their child is ill,” said Chaiban.
Somali refugee Fatuma Abdille said she needs better access to medicine for her youngest son, who has diarrhoea and a fever.
“My son has been sick for the last three months,” said Abdille, who arrived five months ago. She said her son became ill only after they settled in Dolo Ado.
“There is nothing apart from the food rations that we get,” she added.