• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

UNHCR chief decries "humanitarian catastrophe" in CAR, including massive ethno-religious cleansing

News Stories, 12 February 2014

© UNHCR/H.Reichenberger
High Commissioner António Guterres meets a forcibly displaced woman at the airport site in Bangui for internally displaced people. The Muslim woman told Guterres that she had lost everything and had no desire to remain any longer in Central African Republic.

BANGUI, Central African Republic, February 12 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Wednesday said he was "deeply distressed" about the situation in Central African Republic and described what he had seen during a brief visit to the country as "a humanitarian catastrophe of unspeakable proportions."

In a statement released in Bangui, he said that he was concerned because "nearly half-a-million Central Africans have been newly displaced [by fighting and generalized violence] since December alone. In all, 2.5 millions are in desperate need." He added that "massive ethno-religious cleansing is continuing" and this was all the more tragic because of the country's centuries-old tradition of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians.

Guterres, who met internally displaced Muslims and Christians in Bangui as well as repatriating Congolese, religious leaders, top government officials, international peace-keepers, diplomats and humanitarian aid partners during his 24-hour visit, called on the international community to act urgently to help build sustainable peace and stability in the Central African Republic.

"The Central African Republic is falling through the cracks of international attention. This cannot be allowed to happen. The country needs the same focus that is being put on Syria and South Sudan," said the High Commissioner, who specifically called for an increase in the number of foreign troops and police on the ground in the capital, Bangui, and other parts of the country.

The conflict in CAR escalated in December 2012, when the Seleka rebel coalition began fighting the government before capturing Bangui and ousting President François Bozizé in March last year. Months of brutality against civilians followed before wide-scale fighting erupted again in December between the predominantly Muslim Seleka and the mainly Christian Anti-Balaka militias. This was marked by attacks on people based on religion, triggering massive population displacement.

Decrying the "indiscriminate killings and massacres," Guterres noted that tens of thousands of people were fleeing to neighbouring countries while others are trapped. He added that "massive ethno-religious cleansing is continuing."

The High Commissioner said that the country needed international help because although a new government had recently been formed, "it still cannot effectively protect its citizens. It is imperative to re-establish security, law and order."

In his statement and during talks on Tuesday with Christian and Muslim leaders, Guterres stressed the importance of restoring harmony. "Acting in concert, particularly with the support of religious leaders, all actors must enhance mediation and pave the way for the restoration of peace and sustainable reconciliation," he stressed.

UNHCR has been increasingly collaborating with religious leaders, who are instrumental in protecting populations at risk and fighting against religious intolerance. These same religious leaders, and a number of others, however, are now coming under threat for their actions.

On Tuesday, Guterres and France's Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian opened a community night shelter in Bangui's volatile 5th District. Many people in the district stay at home during the day but feel unsafe at night and seek shelter elsewhere. This project, implemented by UNHCR partner ACTED, allows people to stay close to home and in safety.

"We are so scared to go back at night when we hear shooting and screaming. But at the same time, so tired of living in terrible conditions. We hope this centre will help us find the way home," a community leader told the visitors.

Guterres then visited the vast settlement that sprang up in December at Bangui's Mpoko Airport, which now has an estimated population of about 100,000. About half of them come from the 5th District. He met members of both the Muslim and Christian communities during this visit before bidding farewell to a group of Congolese refugees waiting to cross the Oubangui River to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At the airport, widow Zainaba said she had arrived there with her four children 10 days earlier after a terrible ordeal. "I lost everything; my home, my flesh, my identity. My kids sleep on the floor," she told Guterres. "We need your help, we need security. We live in constant fear of being killed."

The High Commissioner also met UNHCR staff and praised humanitarian aid workers for all they have done in Central African Republic under extreme circumstances. "We are all however facing dramatic underfunding. Our resources are overwhelmed and ability to do more hampered," he added, in another clear call to the donor community to step up assistance.




UNHCR country pages

Central African Republic: Urgent Appeal

You can help save the lives of thousands of refugees

Donate to this crisis

A Central African Refugee's Reunion With Her Sons Brings Joy and Sorrow

The violence and conflict in the Central African Republic has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes since mid-December. Many have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, including 80,000 in Cameroon. During the trauma and confusion of flight, families often become separated. They face many dangers on the way to safety, and their journey can take many weeks. Ramatou, a 45-year-old mother of 11 children, was separated from three of her sons and her husband when militiamen attacked her village in January. She ran in one direction with eight children and eventually made it to Cameroon with the help of African Union peace-keepers. Her husband and three sons ran in a different direction and endured many ordeals in the bush, becoming separated again. Earlier this month, Ramatou was reunited in Cameroon's Mbile Refugee Camp with the two youngest boys. She was overjoyed, but dismayed that they were on their own. She still hopes for her husband and eldest son to turn up. Photographer Fred Noy was there at the emotional reunion.

A Central African Refugee's Reunion With Her Sons Brings Joy and Sorrow

Batalimo to Batanga and Beyond: Congolese Return Home from CAR

Over the past month, almost 6,300 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have left the Batalimo camp in the troubled Central African Republic and returned voluntarily to their homes in Equateur province. Their decision to go back is a further sign of the gravity of the situation in Central African Republic, where escalated violence since December has left hundreds of thousands internally displaced and forced almost 350,000 to flee to neighbouring countries. The refugees at Batalimo were among some 20,000 Congolese who had fled to the Central African Republic to escape inter-ethnic conflict back home. The return operation from Batalimo had been postponed several times for security and logistical reasons, but on April 10 the first convoy headed across the Oubangui River. The last arrived in the DRC on May 10. The UN refugee agency organized transportation of the refugees from Batalimo to the Central African Republic riverside town of Zinga, where they boarded boats for the crossing to Batanga or Libenge in Equateur province. In Batanga, the returnees were registered, provided with documentation and given a cash grant to help them reintegrate. They were then transported to their villages, where they will be monitored. Photographer Leonora Baumann followed one group back to the DRC.

Batalimo to Batanga and Beyond: Congolese Return Home from CAR

2014: CAR refugees attacked as they flee to Cameroon

Each week 10,000 Muslims cross into eastern Cameroon to escape the violence consuming the Central African Republic (CAR). Many new arrivals report that they have been repeatedly attacked as they fled. The anti-Balaka militiamen have blocked main roads to Cameroon, forcing people to find alternate routes through the bush. Many are walking two to three months to reach Cameroon, arriving malnourished and bearing wounds from machetes and gunshots.

UNHCR and its partners have established additional mobile clinics at entry points to provide emergency care as refugees arrive. The UN refugee agency is also supporting public health centres that have been overwhelmed by the number of refugees and their condition.

Meanwhile, UNHCR has relocated some 20,000 refugees who had been living in the open in the Garoua Bouai and Kenzou border areas, bringing them to new sites at Lolo, Mborguene, Gado and Borgop in the East and Adamwa regions.

Since the beginning of the year, Cameroon has received nearly 70,000 refugees from CAR, adding to the 92,000 who fled in earlier waves since 2004 to escape rebel groups and bandits in the north of their country.

UNHCR staff members Paul Spiegel and Michele Poletto recently travelled to eastern Cameroon and have the following photos to share from their iPhone and camera.

2014: CAR refugees attacked as they flee to Cameroon

Joint Appeal: Help Needed for Central African RefugeesPlay video

Joint Appeal: Help Needed for Central African Refugees

The UN refugee agency and its partners appealed for more donor support to cope with the continuing outflow and deteriorating condition of refugees from the Central African Republic.
UNHCR's Dr. Paul Spiegel on the Border of CAR  and CameroonPlay video

UNHCR's Dr. Paul Spiegel on the Border of CAR and Cameroon

This video was shot by one of our staff* using a mobile phone as they helped refugees who had crossed the river to safety.
Central African Republic: Torn CommunitiesPlay video

Central African Republic: Torn Communities

For more than a year, inter-communal strife has displaced tens of thousands of people in the Central African Republic. But amid the violence, efforts are being made to promote reconciliation.