The United Nations refugee agency says the growing conflict in Somalia is having a devastating effect on the civilian population and is adding to the already huge number of displaced.
Clashes broke out on January 2nd between the Islamist al-Shabaab group, which is allied with al-Qaida and a rival group that supports the government. The fighting, which occurred in Central Somalia, caused thousands of civilians to flee their homes.
U.N. refugee spokesman Andrej Mahecic says the civilian population is extremely vulnerable.
"Most of them are reported to be living under trees and many children have taken [fallen] ill as a result of the cold nights. Fearing renewed fighting, the IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) have said they have no intention of returning to their homes until the situation stabilizes. As the security situation does not allow UNHCR's immediate intervention, we are in discussions with our local NGO partners to find ways of delivering assistance to the people displaced by the latest fighting in the quickest time possible."
The UNHCR reports many parts of Central Somalia are experiencing an upsurge in fighting. This includes parts of the capital Mogadishu and Beled Weyne, the capital of the Hiraan region.
Mahecic says there may be more displaced people than the 7,000 reported. "The number of Somali refugees also in the region is rising. Some 3,000 Somalis were registered as refugees in Ethiopia in December alone. The estimated rate of new arrivals has gone up from 100 to about 150 a day. The Bokolmanyo refugee camp in south-eastern Ethiopia, which was established only nine months ago now hosts 22,000 Somali refugees, and is already full to capacity."
Mahecic says thousands of Somali refugees have also arrived at the Dolo Ado transit center on the Ethiopia-Somalia border and in Kenya's severely overcrowded Dadaab refugee complex.
Aid agencies say deteriorating conditions in Somalia are likely to trigger large-scale influx of refugees into the neighboring countries.
The U.N. refugee agency reports more than 560,000 Somalis have sought asylum in Kenya, Yemen, Ethiopia and Djibouti.