07/13/2011 05:47 EDT | Updated 09/12/2011 05:12 EDT

Conservative Government Urged To Act In East Africa By Aid Groups


THE CANADIAN PRESS -- OTTAWA - Aid organizations and refugee advocates are pressing the Conservative government to take more action to address the worsening humanitarian crisis in East Africa, including helping to take in more Somali refugees.

Tens of thousands of Somalis are fleeing their drought- and violence-stricken communities to seek shelter in neighbouring countries, particularly Kenya.

Canada has already contributed $11.5 million to deal with the situation, and has supported CARE Canada's management of the swollen Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya for the last 20 years.

But the crisis has reached catastrophic proportions, with an estimated 60,000 refugees waiting outside the camp for refuge -- and that number growing steadily.

The Canadian Somali Congress and the Canadian Council for Refugees note that Canada's visa office in Nairobi, which handles East Africa, has one of the worst backlogs in processing refugees in the system -- 37 months for government-assisted refugees and 51 months for those sponsored by private organizations.

The federal government has added more staff to tackle the backlog, but officials have said they must deal with a variety of factors, including immigration fraud and logistical problems in the region.

In 2010 and 2011, Citizenship and Immigration Canada told the UN Refugee Agency that it could not take any more referrals in Nairobi because it had met its quota of 1,450 in the queue. The department still took in 300 extra in 2010, and told the agency it would take new ones in 2012.

Ahmad Hussen, president of the Canadian Somali Congress, said Canada should be increasing its quotas.

"Ideally we would like Canada to take its fair share of refugees from that conflict. It's not fair for Kenya and Ethiopia and the neighbouring countries to receive millions of refugees where Canada receives a very negligible number," said Hussen.

Janet Dench, spokeswoman for the Canadian Council for Refugees, said the backlog problem also extends to family-class immigrants -- separated families who are waiting for their relatives' visas to be approved. The Nairobi office has the worst record in the system for processing visas for sponsored spouses and children -- 31 months.

"If you have a woman who has come to Canada as a refugee and has been forced to leave behind her children ... she's going to be waiting for years for those family members to be processed and come to Canada," said Dench.

"And what is particularly difficult is the kids are often in a very vulnerable situation, traumatized, sick and without any family members around."

A spokeswoman from the department noted that Canada is increasing the number of refugees it accepts around the world by 20 per cent, as part of a reform of the system. One third of those resettled will come from Africa and the Middle East.

For those refugees who can't escape the region, an entirely new camp has been built in Kenya but is sitting idle.

Hussen and many others organizations would like to see Canada help push the Kenyan government to open the camp, called Ifo II.

But part of Kenya's reticence to open the camp is because of the enormous pressures that have been placed on its own resources and its citizens, who have also faced drought and hardship but often don't have access to the help refugees do in the camps.

CARE Canada President Kevin McCort would like to see Canada encourage other countries to contribute to the areas outside the camps, to ensure that violence doesn't ultimately erupt there.

"Their needs and concerns have to be dealt with because if they're not, then we're just creating a potential source of conflict between newly arrived refugees and source communities," said McCort, who will return to Dadaab next week.

CARE is also asking for more financial assistance to help protect refugee women who are walking great distances to gather water and firewood.

"They're quite vulnerable, in some cases to rape and in some cases to robbery and theft, when they're essentially exposed in the great outdoors."

Justin Broekema, a spokesman for International Aid Minister Bev Oda, said the government is monitoring the situation and speaking to its humanitarian partners to "determine the most effective manner to respond."

Hussen urges Canada to become more involved in rebuilding Somalia, so that refugees can one day return to their homeland.

"They can reinforce the reconciliation process in Somalia, and assist those who are contributing to peace and development in the country as well as fighting the al-Qaida militants in the south and centre of country," said Hussen.

"They can also help the Parliament there figure out governance issues, taxation issues, just help out building better institutions for that country."