Chad: UN refugee chief calls for international presence to protect hundreds of thousands
The head of the United Nations refugee agency today visited strife-torn eastern Chad, calling for a stronger international presence to protect hundreds of thousands of Sudanese fleeing war in their homeland, Chadians displaced by the spreading violence, and aid workers trying to maintain a vital lifeline to the victims of the conflict.
“This is a moment in which a very important decision is taking place... about the possibility of a presence of a multi-dimensional nature in Chad and the northern Central African Republic,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres said before leaving N'Djamena, the Chadian capital, for the conflict zone.
“UNHCR has been clearly advocating in favour of that presence trying to create better security conditions for refugees, for displaced people and for the civilian population,” he added, noting that one plan involved moving the refugee camps hundreds of miles away from the border zone with Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region.
Chanting “security or relocation,” refugees lined both sides of a the dusty road leading into the Goz Amer refugee camp near the south-eastern town of Koukou Angarana as Mr. Guterres arrived. “Please remove us quickly from here,” read a placard waved by one man outside the camp, which houses some 18,000 Darfur refugees.
The agency, struggling to ease the dire humanitarian situation facing 232,000 Darfur refugees, 90,000 Chadian internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 48,000 Central African Republic (CAR) refugees in south Chad, has recently been forced to relocate staff due to escalating violence.
Last weekend, more than 40 people died in brutal attacks on several villages in the Koukou Angarana, including 10 Darfur refugees from Goz Amer. “When we see these villages, burned last week with 40 people killed, and now 90,000 Chadians displaced, one can understand the huge security problem,” Mr. Guterres said. “The international community has a great responsibility to create a humanitarian space so we can keep working. To do nothing would be unacceptable.”
Since 2003, UNHCR has operated a dozen remote camps in eastern Chad scattered along a vast, 600-kilometre stretch of the arid border with Sudan. Since early November, 300 people have been killed in attacks on over 70 villages by armed marauders using tactics identical to those of the notorious Sudanese Government-allied janjaweed militia just across the border in Darfur.
In late November UNHCR lost more than S$1 million in vital supplies looted from its warehouse in the town of Abeche during clashes between government and rebel forces. The violence has forced it and other aid agencies to relocate non-essential staff. Currently, UNHCR maintains only skeleton crews in six of the 12 refugee camps in eastern Chad, affecting over 110,000 Sudanese.
“We don’t want to stay, we want to go to another area,” one refugee shouted as Mr. Guterres went past. “We don’t want to stay in this prison. Every day the janjaweed are killing us.”
UNHCR is studying a Chadian proposal to move the camps up to 600 kilometres inland. Agency and government experts visited proposed sites last week and are preparing a report on “what is possible and what is not possible,” Mr. Guterres said. “In any event, it will represent the possibility of major improvement in security, but also an economic challenge because we are talking about the relocation of some 220,000 people.”
He also met with Chadian IDPs at a sprawling, a makeshift camp for 9,000 people that was attacked last Saturday, leaving six IDPs dead and 83 huts burned.
“Today, we are still afraid; we can't go five kilometres from here,” a displaced village chief told Mr. Guterres. “The most crucial problem is security. Help us in every way you can to restore security. If you can’t give us security, you have to move us from here. We are poor people and we don’t have the means to defend ourselves,” the chief added.