UN agencies reduce presence in eastern Chad amid security concerns
ABECHE, Chad, December 4 (UNHCR) - Amid a deteriorating security situation, UNHCR and other UN agencies have decided to withdraw most of their staff from the vicinity of six camps in eastern Chad housing some 100,000 Sudanese refugees.
UNHCR officials said on Monday that international staff and most local employees of UN agencies based in the towns of Bahai, Iriba and Guéréda will be withdrawn in the next few days to either Abéché or to the Chad capital, N'Djamena. UNHCR will keep a skeleton staff of locals in each office to continue the provision of aid to the nearby camps and to monitor the situation.
UNHCR and its partners assist some 110,000 refugees from Darfur in Oure-Cassoni camp near Bahai; Iridimi, Touloum and Am Nabak camps near Iriba; and Mile and Kounoungo camps near Guéréda.
The security situation remains extremely volatile and unpredictable in the whole of eastern Chad, with clashes between government and rebel forces in recent weeks in the area. Some 200 humanitarian staff workers, including 41 UNHCR staffers, had already been evacuated from Abéché to N'Djamena in the past week. On Sunday, a 14-vehicle convoy carrying dependants of humanitarian workers left here for the capital after receiving guarantees that the road was safe.
"We are adapting to the present situation, which forces us to relocate most of our staff to safer locations for security reasons," UNHCR's representative in Chad, Serge Male, said on Monday. "However, we are maintaining our responsibility towards the refugees and are finding alternative ways to continue assisting them," he added.
This could include sending mobile teams from Abéché to the camps. "If the security situation allows it, we will fly UNHCR and NGO (non-governmental organisation) teams for one- or two-day missions from Abéché to Bahai, Iriba and Guéréda in order to monitor the refugee assistance and protection," said Claire Bourgeois, UNHCR's humanitarian coordinator for eastern Chad.
UNHCR, World Food Programme and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) are in close contact with their implementing partners to ensure that vital services such as primary health care, water supply and food distribution, are maintained in the camps. The six camps have enough supplies for one month.
On Monday morning, teams from UNHCR and the agency's implementing partners visited Mile and Kounoungo camps to help preposition stocks of food and non-food items. Humanitarian teams are meeting refugee leaders to keep them informed about withdrawal of personnel and about the measures taken to keep the camps functioning.
The skeleton teams being left behind will run the camps with help from representatives of implementing partners and from designated refugees.
The decision to drastically reduce staff numbers in Bahai, Iriba and Guéréda, followed military events in Abéché on November 25, when anti-government forces briefly held the town, as well as in Guéréda, which was in the hands of the rebels from last Friday until early Monday.
At one stage last Friday, four unidentified armed men entered the UNHCR compound in Guéréda and stole two vehicles at gunpoint. The situation in Guéréda was calm on Monday, but reports were received of military movements around the town.
Meanwhile, UNHCR has recovered at least 50 percent of the relief items stolen from its main warehouse in Abéché after the rebel attack on the town on November 25. The refugee agency estimated that $1.3 million worth of relief items had been stolen. Items were recovered after the authorities sensitised the local population and organised house-to-house searches.
UNHCR and its partners have been assisting more than 218,000 refugees from Darfur in 12 camps in eastern Chad. There are also some 90,000 displaced persons in eastern Chad, while some 46,000 refugees from the Central African Republic have sought refugee in the south.
By Hélène Caux in Abéché, Chad