30,000 displaced Darfurians may cross into Chad unless security improves
MASTERI, Sudan, Aug 20 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has heard that the continuing insecurity in western Sudan's Darfur region could drive some 30,000 people into Chad, a new influx that could strain UNHCR's ability to care for the refugees in its swelling camps.
Jean-Marie Fakhouri, UNHCR's new director of operations for the Sudan situation, is currently visiting the Darfur region. On Wednesday, he met with some 300 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who represent about 30,000 IDPs in Masteri, a large village in West Darfur.
The IDP leaders told Fakhouri they had fled attacks on their own small villages earlier this year. But even in Masteri, they feel like virtual prisoners as they are regularly attacked by Janjaweed militiamen when they venture outside.
They also told the visiting UNHCR team about killings, rapes and looting. One man recounted how his mother was killed the day before by the Janjaweed who stole her cattle. A 43-year-old woman said she was one of many women who had been raped when she went out of Masteri for food and firewood. Women are being raped every day, she noted, but they continue to go out because the men will be killed if they venture out.
"This group of displaced people said they want protection from UN peacekeepers, an unlikely prospect," said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond at a news briefing in Geneva on Friday. "If they do not get international security guarantees, they said, they will all cross to Chad as soon as the rain-swollen river that marks the border with Sudan dries up."
He added, "We are concerned that such an influx of 30,000 refugees in one single spot along the Chad-Sudan border, if it were to materialise, would put a strain on our ability to care for and feed refugees in our camps there."
According to refugees who were interviewed at the border and in UNHCR camps in Chad, thousands of IDPs are waiting to cross into Chad. However, they added, the Sudanese authorities are exerting military pressure and carrying out propaganda campaigns on the radio and through village chiefs to prevent them from leaving.
"The refugees said they had been told that there was no help for them in Chad," said Redmond. "In some cases they said they were promised food and water to help them survive after their villages had been burned, but the promised aid never arrived and the attacks on their villages continued."
UNHCR staff interviewed many refugees who said they had been able to cross only after hiding from the Janjaweed and military and travelling only at night to avoid detection.
"A number of refugees said they had crossed back into Sudan at times to take care of the cattle they left behind or see relatives who could not make the crossing because of their age or illness. But they said they returned to Chad after being attacked by Janjaweed and military forces who also decimated their cattle herds," said the UNHCR spokesman.
Meanwhile, UNHCR's camps in Chad have seen a sharp increase in spontaneous arrivals from the Chadian side of the border area. The refugees had previously insisted on remaining near the border, where they have been staying with friends and relatives in the hope of crossing back into Darfur once peace returns. However, they are choosing to move to UNHCR's camps now that they are running out of hope and food, and need shelter from the heavy seasonal rains.
"The refugees say that with supplies dwindling and their animals dead or stolen, the refugee camps have become their only chance for survival," said Redmond.
So far this month, 7,345 spontaneous arrivals have been registered at four of UNHCR's nine camps: Breidjing, Oure Cassoni, Mile and Kounoungo. There are still an estimated 18,000 Sudanese refugees encamped near the border.
In Tine, near the border in north-eastern Chad, nearly 1,500 refugees have said they want to move to a camp because they have run out of food. UNHCR plans to provide a one-time assistance of provisions and plastic sheeting before moving them to a new camp at Mader, which should be ready in about a month.