Several countries have sent warships on widely publicised operations against Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. But some 2,000 km away to the south-west and 80 km across the Somali-Kenyan border, an enormous human catastrophe looms, hardly noticed by the rest of the world. The Dadaab complex of camps was built by the United Nations for 45,000 people in 1991, when thousands fled civil war as the last functioning central government in Somalia, the regime of Siad Barre, collapsed. Today the camp holds 267,000 people. They live in U.N. tents or under ramshackle shelters of old plastic and any other material they can find. Temperatures are above 40°C in the shade, and the refugees cook in the open. New arrivals continue to cross into Kenya wherever they can. There are reports of Kenyan police brutality and of racial tensions between the refugees and the local inhabitants, the Kikuyu.

The main causes of this awful situation are political. The southern region has been in near-chaos for 20 years, with the only major change being the overthrow of political warlords, late in 2008, by Islamists. Ordinary people have returned to traditional systems of law and trading, which created some kind of localised stability, but the Islamist Al-Shabaab militias have taken violence to another level. One refugee says he and his family left when members of Al-Shabaab began digging up the remains of Islamist leaders they considered rivals. Few refugees reach the Kenyan camps unharmed, but their numbers are swelling rapidly. The U.N. says more camps are needed, but the Kenyan government is reluctant to provide more land. Internationally, there has been a poor response to the appeal by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for the $92 million needed to meet basic needs at Dadaab. Meanwhile, the Somali pirates have hijacked ships carrying U.N. food supplies for the camps. The $19 million that Dadaab needs in a year is about half the annual running cost of one of the warships patrolling the Somali coastline. The country’s recently installed president, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, is doing his best to sustain a broad coalition and keep talking with militia leaders. But he faces two major problems. It is unlikely that international aid will reach any significant level until there is a major disaster, such as a fire in the overcrowded camps or a deadly epidemic. Secondly, it is unlikely that the rest of the world will end the dumping of toxic waste or commercial overfishing in Somali waters. The world, it seems, has a vested interest in Somalia remaining a collapsed state.