Thousands of children are malnourished in Ethiopia's refugee camps


Ethiopia currently shelters almost a million refugees across the country. But humanitarian groups say the supply of aid is being crushed by the weight of demand.

Omar Dabbagh reports from Ethiopia.

Cries ring out constantly at a nutrition centre in the Jewi refugee camp, in Gambela, south-western Ethiopia.

The children at the centre are severely malnourished and if their conditions don’t improve soon, they could die.

Among them, is three-year-old Tut. During his weekly assessment, he is weighed and measured by doctors and nurses.

Today he and his mother received good news; he gained 600 grams last week. Another 600 and he will be declared healthy.

But Tut is one of the lucky few, with 10,000 children in Gambela at risk of starvation.

Child refugees
10,000 child refugees in the Gambela region are severely malnourished.
SBS News/Omar Dabbagh

The UNHCR's nutrition program has helped bring the rate of malnutrition at the camps down from 33 per cent in 2014, to roughly 13 per cent today. 

But despite this success, Millicent Lusigi Kavsa - a nutrition officer with UNHCR - says qualified medical staff remain in short supply.

“You have a mother who has a child who needs care, but because you don’t have enough medical staff, you don’t have enough facilities in this camp, then you find that the child gets sicker and they get into the state of malnutrition,” she tells SBS News. 

“You also find that because of a lack of capacities within the hospitals to manage complicated cases of malnutrition, some of the children end up dying while they are seeking tertiary services out of these particular camps.”

At the intensive care centre next door in Jewi, the situation is even more dire.

Cramped rooms and limited staff mean the International Medical Corps can only accommodate half a dozen children in intensive care at a time.

Nyahoth Chuol and her daughter
Nyahoth Chuol's daughter was born with fluid in her head.
SBS News/Ben Patrick

Eighteen-month-old Nyachad Diew was born with fluid in her head. Her mother, Nyahoth Chuol says after four months of treatment, the swelling is starting to go down

“Now it’s good, it’s well now,” Ms Chuol says. 

“Last time [it] was very difficult. [Intensive care] is good for the child."

Doctor demand

There are 400,000 people living in Gambela’s seven refugee camps and a further 400,000 in town. Demand for doctors is overwhelming.

Dr Roman Ogud, medical director of Gambela’s only hospital, says Gambela General is in desperate need of repair and renovations.

He adds there are 21 doctors at the hospital, which only has enough beds for 160 patients.

"There is a burden in this hospital,” he says.

“This is because the number of population in this region has increased because [of] the influx the refugees from South Sudan.”

A broken down ambulance
A broken down ambulance outside the only hospital in Gambela town.
SBS News/Omar Dabbagh

Across the refugee camps in Ethiopia, there isn’t enough of anything. Food rations are limited, and families are eating far less than the required intake.

The required daily minimum of clean water for drinking, washing and cleaning, is 20 litres per person. But, Ms Kavsa says a majority of refugees are receiving less than that.

“If water is not enough, that means the mothers don’t have water to wash their hands,” she says. 

“They don’t have access to adequate latrines, they don’t have access to soap, enough soap for the household, meaning the children ingest that, they fall sick and they become malnourished.”

Gambela General Hospital
Gambela General Hospital is overwhelmed due to the influx of refugees.
SBS News/Omar Dabbagh

Refugees stepping up

Ethiopia was long associated with African poverty.

And while a majority of the developing nation continues to struggle, it has also come a long way to now shelter more than 900,000 refugees from neighbouring countries.

With understaffing a recurring problem across Ethiopia's 26 camps, refugees are stepping up.

James Nhial Gach is a social worker who focusses on the most vulnerable members of the Kule camp, the children.

"I felt like that was the only way to help special children, because dealing as a social worker is not an easy task,” he says. 

“It’s not an easy thing. But many people fear it because it is tiresome.”

James Nhial Gach
James Nhial Gach, a refugee living in the Kule camp.
SBS News/Ben Patrick

Other local initiatives include a door-to-door community consultation to teach young mothers the best way to nurse and care for their children.

Mr Gach says more professionals are needed to deal with the most delicate problems.

“We need the social workers to continue,” he says.

“To continue doing work. Doing all those different assistance. So we need donors to help our social workers. To help our children.”

Community consultation
A door-to-door community consultation at the Jewi camp in Gambela.
SBS News/Omar Dabbagh

Omar Dabbagh and cameraman Ben Patrick travelled to Ethiopia with the assistance of UNHCR. You can donate to the South Sudan emergency via the UNHCR website or by calling 1300 361 288.

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