By United Nations

5 July - As the influx of Somali refugees into neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia continues unabated, the United Nations refugee agency today voiced concern about unprecedented levels of malnutrition among the new arrivals, especially children.

More than 50 per cent of Somali children arriving in Ethiopia, and between 30 to 40 per cent of those arriving in Kenya, are seriously malnourished, says the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“Knowing that children are dying along their journey to safety breaks our hearts,” said High Commissioner António Guterres, who is scheduled to visit the border areas as well as refugee camps later this week.

“This is turning one of the world's worst humanitarian crises into a human tragedy of unimaginable proportions,” he added.

UNHCR says more than 135,000 Somalis have fled the Horn of Africa nation so far this year owing to ongoing violence and devastating drought. In June alone, 54,000 people fled across the two borders, three times the number of people who fled in May.

It is estimated that a quarter of Somalia's population of 7.5 million is now either internally displaced or living outside the country as refugees. Ongoing conflict inside the country makes it difficult if not impossible for aid agencies to reach these people with assistance.

“Many families tell us they exhausted virtually all of their resources. Facing starvation, they walk for days, several weeks at times, through the desert, arriving in an appalling state of health,” UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told reporters in Geneva.

“Increasingly, we are hearing reports of children below the age of five dying of hunger and exhaustion during the journey,” she said. “Tragically, many children are in such weak conditions when they finally arrive that they die within 24 hours despite the emergency care and therapeutic feeding they immediately receive.”

UNHCR is scheduled to fly in 100 tonnes of relief items later today, while a land convoy with some 20 trucks loaded with aid is due to reach the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Thursday.

The agency is also about to issue an appeal covering food, shelter, health services and other life-saving aid supplies. “The needs are urgent and massive,” said Ms. Fleming.

“In the light of the urgency of the situation, UNHCR not only calls on governments but also on individual donors and the private sector to urgently support our life-saving operations in Ethiopia and Kenya.”