The fragile life-line for 110,000 Sudanese refugees in eastern Chad is stretching even thinner as the security situation deteriorates, with fighting between Government troops and rebels forcing humanitarian agencies to reduce staff to the bare minimum, United Nations agencies warned today.
“We plan to keep a minimum presence in each of the three field offices of Bahai, Iriba and Guereda to ensure assistance to the refugees continues and to monitor the situation,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told a news briefing in Geneva, referring to the three worst affected areas.
The overall situation for 218,000 Darfurian refugees and 90,000 displaced Chadians took a serious turn for the worse some 10 days ago when the town of Abeche, hub for relief efforts, was first occupied by rebel forces and then re-taken by Government troops.
During the turmoil the main UN relief supply warehouses were pillaged, reportedly by local residents.
The precariousness of the security situation for UN staff was underlined by an incident during military activity in Guereda on Friday, when four armed men forced their way into UNHCR’s compound, threatened the staff at gunpoint and stole two vehicles.
So far, over 200 humanitarian staff have been relocated from Abeche. “We plan to use Abeche as a base to send mobile teams of our staff and partner NGO staff to the northern camps for a couple of days as security permits,” Ms. Pagonis said.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) also warned that its operations were becoming increasingly difficult, with periodic fighting forcing it to temporarily suspend all non-emergency activities in parts of the troubled region, affecting at least 56,000 Chadians who would normally benefit.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people – refugees from Sudan and Chadians – who depend on us for their daily needs,” WFP Country Director Felix Bamezon said. “WFP and our partners have a huge job to do. For that we need a measure of calm to return – at present the situation is too volatile for our staff to work normally.” WFP lost 483 metric tons of food when its warehouses in Abeche was looted.
The UN World Health Organization (WHO) also reported that its operations were being hampered by the growing unrest. Its staff stationed in Abeche, including three internationals, have expertise in emergency response and fighting epidemics.
There are 110,000 refugees from Darfur in six camps in the three worst affected areas. All essential international and local staff of UN agencies operating there are scheduled to be relocated to Abeche or the Chadian capital N'Djamena.
“UN agencies are working with their operational partners to ensure vital services such as primary health, access to water and distribution of food are maintained in the camps,” Ms. Pagonis said. “Contingency plans are being activated with pre-positioning of supplies so the six camps directly affected by the staff reduction can run themselves for about one month.”
This process got under way yesterday at Mile and Kounoungo camps near Guereda. Humanitarian teams are meeting refugee leaders to keep them informed of the reductions and the measures necessary for each camp to keep functioning. Some 54 people are needed to keep both camps working with basic assistance. These tasks will be performed by partner NGO staff as well as by designated refugees. The same measures are being put into place for camps around Bahai and Iriba.
UNHCR has recovered at least 50 per cent of the $1.3-million worth of relief items looted from its main warehouse in Abeche.