Race against time to help thousands of Central African refugees
Twice in his long life, 74-year-old Joseph had to flee conflict in the Central African Republic. When violence erupted ahead of the country’s elections in December, he knew it would be a third.
“There was war, so we had to flee. It is the third time I am fleeing my country. I am tired. At my age, you can imagine that I am not only tired but I feel despair and anguish,” says Joseph wearily.
He had previously fled his hometown of Bangassou, some 700 kilometres from the capital Bangui, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2013. He later returned home but had to flee again in 2018 because of conflict. And in January 2021, Joseph and his family had no choice but to escape again.
The insecurity and violence surrounding last December’s elections have forced over 100,000 people like him to flee – some into neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, the DRC and the Republic of the Congo, while around 100,000 people are displaced inside CAR.
“It is the third time I am fleeing my country. I am tired.”
Arrivals into the DRC have reached 92,000, according to local authorities. So far, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its government partner have registered over 22,000 people and will update the population figures based on actual registrations.
Joseph and thousands of others found safety in Ndu, a remote village located on the other side of the Mbomou river which borders CAR in Bas Uele Province, in northern DRC. Most of them arrived exhausted after crossing the border river, with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. UNHCR, has warned that tens of thousands face dire conditions, as many are without basic needs like food, water, medical assistance and shelter.
Makeshift shelters that offer little protection from rain, wind, and the scorching sun have mushroomed along the main road in Ndu. Some families have taken refuge in abandoned houses and the village’s cramped school, while others have no option but to sleep out in the open.
Louise, 75, lives with a disability and can only walk with crutches. The journey to find safety was especially hard on her
“I heard gun shots. I fled to protect myself and my loved ones,” she says.
She now lives in a tiny shelter with 17 other family members. Tree branches and old pipes hold a plastic tarpaulin in place – this is where she stores the few belongings her family was able to carry in their hurry to leave.
While the local host community has shown generosity in welcoming the displaced, they have extremely limited resources and need support to cope with the enormous strain.
“There is so much I need to think about that I haven’t even named my new born baby girl.”
For many, the river is also their sole source of water for drinking, washing and cooking. Diseases like malaria, respiratory tract infections and diarrhoea have become common among the refugees, especially children.
These conditions are particularly stressful for women like Benitia, 23, who fled while pregnant, with her two-year-old daughter and her husband. Thankfully, she delivered her second child safely in Ndu. But she is afraid of her two children getting sick.
“Our life has changed overnight. We are now refugees. There is so much I need to think about that I haven’t even named my new born baby girl,” she says.
Most refugee families have spontaneously settled along the border with CAR which remains unsafe. Although the security situation in Bangassou is now relatively calm, refugees on the DRC side have reported that they still hear gunshots from neighbouring areas on the CAR side. They say that they prefer to stay here in the hope that they will be able to return home soon.
“It is a race against time as these roads will become impassable during the rainy season.”
The vast distances and extremely poor road conditions mean that humanitarian assistance is taking a lot of time to reach people in need.
“Refugees have found safety in very remote and hard to reach areas, where infrastructure can be very limited. It is a race against time as these roads will become impassable during the rainy season,” says Madeleine Tchabi Moumouni, UNHCR’s head of sub-office in Gbadolite, in North Ubangi province.
UNHCR is already distributing emergency supplies such as blankets, sleeping mats, kitchen sets, tarpaulins and mosquito nets to the most vulnerable families and is pre-positioning supplies in key locations before vast areas become inaccessible by road.
Biometric registration is also ongoing, with up to 1,000 new arrivals registered per day, which enables the early identification of people with vulnerabilities.
However, funding vital to UNHCR’s humanitarian response for the existing 173,000 refugees from CAR is already critically low and under severe pressure as the numbers continue to rise. The current influx is further exerting enormous strain on resources and urgent funding is needed to protect refugees from exposure to the elements during the upcoming rainy season.