DADAAB, KENYA — As tens of thousands of refugees flee Somalia’s famine for Kenya’s arid east, residents say they are torn between welcoming their fellow ethnic Somalis - and feeling threatened as the new arrivals squeeze the area’s limited resources and compete for jobs.
Officials fear the new influx could force long-simmering tension in the region to boil over.
Police say they already have seen locals clash with refugees who have recently crossed the nearby border. That has prompted police to ask for hundreds more officers.
In recent weeks, some 1,500 refugees have arrived each day at the overcrowded Unrun refugee camps in Kenya’s east.
The United Nations says more than 12 million people in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti need aid, after a devastating drought swept across the region. Somalia has been hardest hit.
Northeastern Kenya has long been inhabited by ethnic Somalis, making it a destination for 400,000 Somali refugees, who are now in the world’s largest refugee camps of Dadaab.
The first influx started in 1991, when tens of thousands came as refugees after Somalia’s last central government collapsed.
Osman Bathe, a resident who has been elected to local office and hails from the region, said he is torn between his loyalties to his people, Kenyan Somalis, and sympathy for tens of thousands of famine-stricken Somalis.
“The old refugees have caused us a lot of trouble in terms of security and environment, yet we can’t rise up against the new arrivals because doing that will be inhuman,” he said.
“We share religion, language and culture. They’re our Somali brothers, and they’re fleeing from hunger and wars.”
Mr. Bathe said he has only eight camels and 10 sheep left because refugees have cut down trees and used nearby lands either for building shelters or grazing their own animals.
He said that in better days, before refugees came in 1991, he had 70 camels, 100 sheep and 55 cows.
Police say they have seen recent clashes between longtime residents and refugees because some locals are angered over the refugees’ presence.
“They are a group of locals who terrorize the refugees,” said Nelson Shilunji Taliti, the police commander in Dadaab.
“There is animosity between them. But it not serious because there is no fighting going on, but it is something that can explode in the near future.”
In August, he said, gunmen opened fire on a bus carrying refugees from Somalia. No one was hurt, but the attackers fired at police when Kenyan security forces went to the area.
“They were just criminals who are after money and wanted to rob new refugees,” he said.
Kenyans also complain that aid agencies hire refugees as cheap labor and give more assistance to refugees than to needy locals, something aid groups deny.
Locals also say they fear the fragile environment is being threatened.
Bashir Ahmed Bihi, who came to Kenya as a refugee in 1991, said refugees cut down trees to earn money for clothing and food that is not included in their rations.
“When we came here, it was full of trees, grass and animals,” he said. “But now the area has become a desert, something that shows the degradation it went through over the years.”
He said locals have also benefited from free services set up by aid groups, such as schools, water and health services.
“It cuts both ways,” he said. “We benefited from them, and we are grateful for that. They benefited from us, too.”
The United Nations’ refugee agency says it has tried to address locals’ concerns by spending $2.7 million on regional projects from 2009 to 2010. Those include environmental projects and health facilities, said Fafa Olivier Attidzah, the head of the agency’s suboffice at Dadaab.
“We have done a lot. It is not commensurate with the damage, but, you know, there is a progress, especially for the last two years,” he said.
The Kenyan government has long stressed the need to pacify Somalia - where lawlessness is threatening Kenya’s security - and urged U.N. agencies to set up camps for Somali refugees inside Somalia.
But Mr. Attidzah said the bigger problem lies across the border and that Somalia needs a political solution.
Locals like Mr. Bathe, the Kenyan elected official, say they have more immediate problems.
“We used to have an abundance of milk after our animals ate their fill,” Mr. Bathe said. “Now animals and people are hungry.”