Refugee shelters at the transit centre in Dollo Ado, where refugees are documented before entering camps. Photo: ANGELIKA MENDES/JRS

Children vastly outnumber adults in some of the refugee camps in the Horn of Africa, where a prolonged drought is causing a severe food crisis.

In the camps in the Dollo Ado district in Ethiopia, there are almost 120,000 refugees, most of whom came from neighbouring Somalia in search of food and water.

Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has provided information on the situation through reports and press releases.

“More than 80 per cent of the refugee population are children below the age of 18,” said Fr Frido Pflueger, the director of JRS Eastern Africa.

“It was one of the worst things I have seen in my life: All these little children in the desert … the camps are like little towns, little towns full of children,” said Fr Pflueger, who visited the area in August.

An estimated 12 million people are facing starvation in the Horn of Africa, a region that includes Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Somalia, the worst-hit nation. There are more than 750,000 Somali refugees in Eastern Africa, mostly in Kenya and Ethiopia.

In the four Dollo Ado camps in southeastern Ethiopia, single mothers with large families predominate.

“The men are either dead or disappeared, or they remained in Somalia looking after the livestock, or have been recruited by al-Shabab or were not allowed to leave the country,” said Fr Pflueger, referring to the al-Shabab militant group that controls parts of south and central Somalia.

Very few aid agencies work in Somalia because of the dangers posed by al-Shabab, which has restricted access to famine victims. Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, a contributing factor to the food crisis.

Fr Pflueger said: “JRS teams are also welcoming families fleeing the forced recruitment of their children … one 16-year-old boy had his hand amputated after he refused to join al-Shabab.

“Other families have had to take longer routes to avoid al-Shabab, consequently their children die from hunger or face exploitation at the hands of people posing as good Samaritans.”

In Kenya and Ethiopia, JRS Eastern Africa is assisting more than 16,000 refugees and asylum seekers by offering food items, emergency aid, educational, financial and medical support, as well as training counsellors and mental health workers.

In the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Idil, a 59-year-old Somali refugee, said: “I walked one month to reach Addis, my legs were swollen and I was too weak to speak when I finally arrived. I had to leave my mother behind on the way, she was too old, she didn’t make it and I had to save my own life. Now I worry about her.”

JRS Eastern Africa plans to start a project soon in the Dollo Ado camps.

“There are children everywhere! And they have nothing to do. …. And what I found most astonishing: you greet them and they smile at you, friendly, and look at you with open eyes,” said Fr Pflueger.

“Many of them need special treatment because they are malnourished. Some NGOs are already working very hard to make sure the children … get fed. JRS has to act very soon, because it is our obligation to help the poorest of the poor. And I have seen them in these camps,”

He emphasised the need for a longer-term response, in addition to ensuring emergency needs are met.

“I think the best way to create a conducive environment for them is to build schools.… My impression is that the Somalis will stay in these camps [for a long time] … it does not look like the situation in Somalia will improve soon. So it makes sense for us to provide education.”

JRS is active in more than 50 countries. For more information, visit JRS Singapore’s website,

By Venessa Lee