Up to 20,000 Chadians flee to Cameroon

Briefing Notes, 5 February 2008

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 5 February 2008, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

A five-member UNHCR team arrived last evening in the Cameroon border town of Kousséri and estimates that up to 20,000 people have crossed the river border with Chad since Saturday to escape fighting in the Chadian capital of N'Djamena. As of this morning, frightened people were still crossing in a continuous flow.

UNHCR is also preparing to send two airlift flights this week from our regional aid stockpiles in Dubai to Cameroon. They will carry a total of 90 tonnes of relief supplies, including plastic sheeting, jerry cans, blankets, mosquito nets, kitchen sets and plastic rolls. These supplies will be enough for 14,000 refugees.

A large number of people are being hosted with relatives in Kousséri, while others found refuge in schools and some are staying in the few hotels of the town. Between 6,000 and 7,000 refugees are staying at a transit centre located near the bridge. The UNHCR team says these people are the most vulnerable ones as they have been spending the past few nights in the open, with very little protection from the elements. The refugees made two big bonfires last night to get some warmth.

We are planning to move these people as soon as possible to a better campsite in Maltam, 32 km from Kousséri. It's an old campsite used by UNHCR several years ago. The site in Maltam could host up to 100,000 people and is already equipped with wells. Authorities in Kousséri told us that 62 wounded people, who escaped fighting in N'Djamena, are being treated in the local hospital.

Our team is meeting again this morning with the authorities and the Red Cross in Kousséri in order to coordinate and speed up assistance to the refugees. Two UNHCR trucks with relief items such as blankets, plastic sheeting and cooking sets departed Bertoua, in eastern Cameroon, yesterday and are scheduled to arrive in Kousséri tonight.

A second UNHCR team is leaving for Kousséri today from Yaoundé. They are flying to Garoua and will then drive to Kousséri where they are expected to arrive tomorrow

In eastern Chad, meanwhile, UNHCR and its partners continue to care for hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people. But continuing security concerns led to the evacuation yesterday of 25 non-essential UNHCR staff from our main field operations base at Abéché. They were among 47 non-essential UN staff and 99 NGO workers flown in two UN planes to Yaoundé, in Cameroon. The decision to take this precautionary security measure was taken Sunday, following reports of bombing and attacks near Adré, east of Abéché near the border with Sudan's Darfur region.

Conditions are reported as calm but tense in Abéché. The security situation remains difficult further to the north, in Guéréda, where a series of armed attacks on UNHCR and other aid agencies last week forced an evacuation of most staff. There was another bandit attack on Mile refugee camp near Guéréda yesterday. Firing weapons, the armed men stole the sixth vehicle in a week, but no injuries were reported.

UNHCR and its partners operate 12 large refugee camps in eastern Chad with some 240,000 Sudanese refugees who have fled Sudan's neighbouring Darfur region. Another 50,000 refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) are in camps in southern Chad. In addition, UNHCR is involved in providing help to some of the 180,000 Chadians who have been displaced internally by earlier unrest in Chad.

As we have noted, these hundreds of thousands of uprooted people in Chad depend on international support and a very fragile aid lifeline that must reach some of the most desolate and isolated parts of the country. We urgently appeal to all sides to respect humanitarian principles and to halt the violence.

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Nearly 200,000 refugees, the majority of them women and children, have fled across the border from Sudan into Chad since the outbreak of conflict in Sudan's Darfur region in March 2003. The refugees have left behind their homes and often loved ones in Darfur, where militias have reportedly killed and raped villagers, looted and burned houses and possessions and driven people from their homes.

Most of the refugees in eastern Chad are sheltered in 11 camps established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where they receive humanitarian aid, shelter, water and basic services.

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