UNHCR expresses alarm over continuing reports of forced recruitment in Chad refugee camps
BREIDJING CAMP, Chad, May 16 (UNHCR) - The U.N. refugee agency is receiving reports that the recruitment of Sudanese male refugees in camps in eastern Chad is continuing despite UNHCR's previous denunciation of such activities and repeated appeals to Chadian authorities to ensure that the civilian character of all camps is maintained.
In March, thousands of men and boys were forcibly or voluntarily recruited in Breidjing and Treguine refugee camps by some Sudanese rebel groups. In April, Goz Amir camp was reportedly the scene of recruitment activities as well.
UNHCR staff in Chad have been told by worried refugees that these activities have not stopped and the agency fears recruitment could also be spreading to other refugee sites in eastern Chad. UNHCR and its partners operate a dozen refugee camps in eastern Chad housing some 200,000 Sudanese from the neighbouring Darfur region.
Karim (not his real name), a 16-year-old refugee boy in Breidjing camp, recalled how a convoy of fighters from a Sudanese rebel group appeared in the camp market one morning in mid-March and began lecturing the refugees about their duty to fight for their homeland.
"They told me that Sudan was my fatherland, that I had to go and fight for it," said the boy, who is obviously still anxious about his ordeal. "I did not want to go, but I was afraid I would be beaten up if I refused, so I followed them."
On that single weekend in mid-March, an estimated 4,700 refugee men and boys were taken away to various locations along the Chad-Sudan border. Most of them were forced to go along, but a few joined voluntarily, the refugees said. Karim ended up with other boys in a remote, makeshift camp and received some basic military training.
"We were taught how to clean weapons - not to use them, but to clean them," said Karim. "Some recruits refused to obey and they were beaten up."
Ibrahim, 18, was recently approached in the refugee camp by three men carrying clubs who forced him into their vehicle.
"I asked them for some time in order to get my clothes, but they refused and I was afraid of being beaten up, so I went with them," Ibrahim said, adding that he was taken to a small camp where it was extremely hot and where there was little food.
"We were told that after the training was over, we would have to go and fight."
Like Karim, Ibrahim escaped days later with some other boys and fled back to the refugee camp. He was lucky. Several hundred refugee children from Breidjing and Treguine camps are reportedly still missing and are believed to still be held somewhere along the Chad-Sudan border.
Those who managed to escape and make it back to the camp now say they fear the rebels will return and find them. Some of the refugee elders say they were not as shocked by the attempt to recruit refugees as they were by the violent manner in which it was carried out in the middle of a refugee camp.
"Refugee camps are meant to be safe havens where refugees can at least find protection and safety," said UNHCR Representative for Chad Ana Liria-Franch. "People who have fled the horrors of Darfur have already suffered enough. It is totally unacceptable that refugee camps become recruiting grounds, and that children under the age of 18 are being victimized."
In Geneva, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters Tuesday that the agency was again calling on the Chadian government to do everything it can to preserve the civilian character of the refugee camps and to ensure security in and around the camps.
"This is absolutely essential because there are reports indicating that some local camp leaders and Chadians are condoning the recruitment," Redmond said. "Other camp leaders say they fear such activities will make the camps subject to attack. UNHCR has had several high-level meetings with Chadian authorities over the past two months in which we stressed their obligations towards refugees on their territory under international refugee law."
Several refugee accounts say Chadian authorities facilitated or colluded with rebel groups in recruitment activities, including urging refugee leaders to help with the process. The accounts also say the rebels directly asked refugee leaders to assist them in recruiting.
In Goz Amir camp, a refugee leader acknowledged that he directly encourages young male refugees to join the Sudanese rebel movements.
"There are no weapons in the camp" he says. "But we are not preventing people from going to fight. My son enrolled and if he falls, it will be for a just cause - Sudan."
Claire Bourgeois, UNHCR's deputy representative for operations in Chad, said refugee lives could be at stake from the ongoing recruitment activities in the camps.
"If recruitment continues in the civilian camps, the refugees will become an easy target for other armed groups opposing the rebel movements responsible for this recruitment," Bourgeois warned.
In Goz Amir camp, several refugee leaders expressed fears that the janjaweed militia would attack them if they are perceived as helping Sudanese rebel movements.
"We don't want any relationship between recruitment and refugees in the camp," said one of the leaders.
UNHCR is also calling on rebel movements in the region to cease all such activities in civilian refugee camps in eastern Chad.
Bourgeois said that since the recruitment issue arose in March, UNHCR has been conducting awareness campaigns in the camps, raising the issue with refugee leaders and reminding them of their duties and rights as refugees. UNHCR teams are also visiting camp schools to inform children of the dangers and are working with the Chadian-supplied gendarmes who are assigned to ensure security in and around the camps.
By Hélène Caux in Breidjing, Treguine and Goz Amir refugee camps, Chad