Stepping up its response to the increasing waves of displacement in the Central African Republic (CAR), where rebel attacks, banditry and fighting have driven almost 300,000 people from their homes, the United Nations refugee agency has led a joint mission with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to the country’s remote northeast and opened a new field office in one of its neighbours.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told journalists today in Geneva that the joint mission at the weekend visited the area around Birao, the main town in the CAR’s northeast and the scene of brutal fighting earlier this month.
Nearly the entire population of 14,000 people fled Birao following the attack by the rebel group, the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), in which more than 700 houses were burned and vital stocks of food and seeds for the upcoming planting season were destroyed, she said.
The burning of houses by rebels and other militants has become a widespread tactic in the CAR, from Ouham-Pendé prefecture in the northwest to Vakaga prefecture in the northeast.
The UNHCR-NGO mission found that while some Birao residents are starting to return to try to rebuild their homes, many others remain afraid to come back. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people have already sought refuge in Sudan’s strife-torn Darfur region and other residents have fled to Am Dafok at the Sudanese border.
About 212,000 people have become internally displaced in the CAR since the latest waves of violence began in September 2005, and another 70,000 have fled to Cameroon, Chad and now Sudan.
UNHCR and NGOs operating in the CAR have handed out clothing, mosquito nets and some basic household items to internally displaced persons (IDPs), but the distribution has been hampered because most people have fled to the bush or are scattered among small villages.
Ms. Pagonis also said that UNHCR has opened a five-member field office in Bertoua in eastern Cameroon to help deal with the arrival of as many as 25,000 ethnic Mbororo refugees from the CAR.
The Mbororo refugees are nomadic cattle breeders who lived in the west and northwest of the CAR, but fled after being targeted systematically by organized groups of bandits and rebels who steal their livestock. Many refugees have told UNHCR that their wives and children have been kidnapped and they had to pay large ransom sums to get them back.
Most of the Mbororos are now destitute, unable to retain any of their cattle for grazing inside Cameroon and often suffering from malnutrition or disease.
UNHCR plans to move the refugees to Ngam, about 65 kilometres from the border, and considered a safer and more rural area where the Mbororos can be more self-reliant.
Decades of recurrent armed conflict, political instability and poor governance have devastated the lives of the 4.2 million people of the CAR, one of the least developed countries on earth according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index.
Social indicators have been declining steadily for two decades, with 2003 estimates putting under-five child mortality at more than 20 per cent. Basic infrastructure and social services, such as health and education, are nearly non-existent outside the capital, Bangui.
In 2007, the UN is appealing for $54.5 million for urgently-needed aid. To date, just under $8 million has been received, or 15 per cent of requirements. In 2006, only 60 per cent of total needs were covered.
Last week the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) launched emergency action to provide immediate aid to women and children in the CAR’s northeast.