Armed group prevents relocation of newly arrived refugees in eastern Chad
ABECHE, Chad, February 15 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency was on Friday trying to resolve the plight of thousands of Sudanese refugees stuck just inside eastern Chad after armed men refused to permit their relocation to camps.
Some 8,000 people have crossed into Chad over the past week to escape deadly militia attacks on their homes in Sudan's West Darfur region. When UNHCR and its partners tried on Tuesday to begin moving the refugees to one of the 12 camps the agency runs in eastern Chad, the unidentified gunmen prevented the relocation, giving no reason for their action.
"This is deeply concerning and we are making every effort with the Chadian authorities to get these refugees moved quickly. The situation is so serious that our representative in Chad is now at the border trying to find a solution to this problem," UNHCR spokeswoman, Jennifer Pagonis, told reporters in Geneva on Friday. "The area is highly insecure with roaming armed groups posing a real threat to the refugees and aid workers," she added.
UNHCR has several trucks ready to begin the relocation and is awaiting a green light from the central authorities. The refugee agency is worried about the health and safety of the refugees; at least one person has died from the cold conditions at night in the past 48 hours.
The joint UNHCR-led humanitarian mission on Tuesday, which had located scattered groups of very poorly refugees in the border area of Birak on Sunday, found 179 refugee families (about 1,000 people) ready to be picked up in Figuera as earlier arranged.
The plan was to start moving the first group to Kounoungou camp in Guéréda, some 90 kilometres to the north-west, but the refugees - 70 percent of them women and children - were prevented from boarding the trucks by the armed men. The team pledged to come back within a few days with relief supplies.
The UNHCR-led mission then moved on to another location to collect refugees but found they had moved away, scared by rumours of imminent attacks by janjaweed militia.
"The humanitarian situation of these people is disastrous," said Jorge Holly, head of UNHCR's field office in Guéréda. "These people are terrified. Our team found a large number of unaccompanied minors and separated children among them. Women reported having been raped in Darfur."
Many of the new arrivals around Birak were already internally displaced in West Darfur and had been living in camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). The UNHCR office at El Geneina in West Darfur is reporting that many IDP families who did not flee to Chad, are reporting missing children in the area of Sirba.
"With the help of ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] on both sides of the border, we will do our best to reunite them with their families as soon as possible," Holly said.
In Darfur, several inter-agency missions undertaken this week have been able to confirm that thousands of people were displaced in the Sirba, Seliah and Abu Suruj area after air and ground attacks last weekend. The population of the three villages located 50-70 kms north of El Geneina had fallen from 30,000 to around 6,500. Homes had been torched and livestock stolen, the teams found.
Humanitarian agencies have delivered food and non-food assistance to those remaining in these villages. UNHCR has this week provided relief aid to people who fled from Abu Suruj to Armankul village due to the fighting, including some 1,500 refugees from Chad. Additional inter-agency missions are planned in the next few days to other villages.
Meanwhile, another UNHCR team on Thursday visited the eastern Chad border area of Koruk, where several thousand refugees are scattered. The team found some refugees who had managed to flee with food, animals and household items, but other groups had nothing. Some families reported being attacked and robbed by janjaweed on their way to Chad. There are an estimated 8,000 newly arrived refugees in the Birak and Koruk areas.
"We face some tough logistical challenges in getting the refugees quickly away from the border and are planning in the meantime to concentrate the new arrivals in two to three locations to make giving immediate assistance easier. MSF-Suisse, ICRC as well as UNHCR and its partners will be present," UNHCR's Pagonis said in Geneva.
Basic items like sleeping mats, blankets, jerry cans and soap will be distributed and tents set up to provide basic shelter this weekend. The World Food Programme will hand out food.
Before this latest influx of refugees, UNHCR and its partners were caring for 240,000 refugees from Darfur in the 12 camps in eastern Chad.
By Annette Rehrl in Abéché, Chad