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UNHCR regrets deaths of refugees in Chadian camp

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UNHCR regrets deaths of refugees in Chadian camp

22 July 2004

Editor's note: Some details in this press release were amended on July 23 following further information from the field.

22 July 2004

GENEVA - The UN refugee agency expressed deep regret today following the deaths of two refugees during efforts by Chadian government authorities to quell unrest in two refugee camps in eastern Chad.

Aid workers in the area told UNHCR today that they saw two bodies, a man and a woman, that had been taken from Farchana camp following Chadian government operations to search for weapons at the site and seek out the culprits of recent attacks on aid workers.

The Chadian government had previously ordered all aid workers other than officials of CNAR - Commission Nationale d'Accueil et de Réinsertion des Réfugiés, UNHCR's government counterpart - to temporarily withdraw from Farchana and Breidjing camps following the violence that erupted on July 13 and July 16 respectively. Aid workers who escaped last week's unrest said they feared they could have lost their lives had they not fled the unruly crowds.

"The tragic death of these two refugees is yet another sign of the precarious situation facing the some 200,000 Sudanese refugees in Chad," said Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Wendy Chamberlin. "Protection and assistance for the refugees is UNHCR's number one global priority."

Farchana camp shelters more than 11,000 Sudanese refugees who were relocated from the border over recent months.

UNHCR urges both the Chadian government and refugees to explore all avenues to resolve the situation without further violence. The agency has taken part in repeated efforts to talk to the refugees, and has also been working to get local tribal elders to intercede between the refugees and the government in order to try to diffuse the situation.

The violence had started on July 13, when exiles protesting relief agency efforts to improve conditions in the overcrowded camps attacked aid workers in Farchana camp with rocks and other projectiles. On July 16, knife-wielding refugees descended upon aid workers at Breidjing camp.

Breidjing has some 30,000 residents - having swelled to twice its planned size due to the unexpected arrival of thousands of refugees who spontaneously walked from the border with Sudan.

The Chadian government has so far made four attempts to talk with the refugees, but was repeatedly rebuffed.

"We are deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation on the ground," said David Lambo, who oversees the UN refugee agency's operations in Africa. "Over recent days we have made every endeavour together with the government to resolve the tensions in a peaceful manner. We are continuing to work with the government to resolve similar tensions in the other camp."

Aid workers and government officials say that men claiming to speak for the 40,000 refugees living at the two sites have been making conflicting claims during the ongoing discussions to diffuse the tensions. Possible reasons behind the incidents include fears among some refugee leaders that the international community was unwilling to help them to speedily return home, but instead wanted to keep them in camps.

Meanwhile, conditions at the camps have worsened since aid workers were asked to leave, with key activities like water distribution and sanitation work winding down, leaving refugees at the two sites dependent on shallow wells. Other key assistance like food and shelter distribution and the provision of medical care have also halted.

UNHCR is concerned that the two camps' majority population of women and children are affected by the interruption of relief activities. A food distribution is planned for August 1 at the sites near Adré, but this will depend upon the security situation.

The Chadian government has ultimate responsibility for maintaining security in the camps.