UNHCR concerned about challenges in eastern Chad
ABECHE, Chad, May 11 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has expressed concern about continuing challenges to its attempts to assist Sudanese refugees in Chad despite making tremendous progress in the last few months.
Some 65,000 Sudanese refugees - more than half of the 110,000 estimated to be encamped along the Chad-Sudan border after fleeing the Darfur region in western Sudan in the last year - have now moved to camps in eastern Chad. Among those relocated were 55,000 transferred by UNHCR and some 10,000 who travelled on their own to the camps.
Six camps have been opened to accommodate them since mid-January, including the latest one opened in Mille late last week. Relocation convoys are continuing on a daily basis so that the refugees can receive proper assistance in the camps.
In the border area of north-eastern Chad, UNHCR and CARE are distributing food and household items to some 27,000 Sudanese refugees this week, including some 12,500 registered at Kariari and 14,448 at Bahai. Among the aid to be delivered are jerry cans, buckets, plastic sheeting and 15-day food rations of corn flour, sorghum, corn-soya blend, beans and oil from the World Food Programme.
This is the second time UNHCR has distributed WFP food to refugees at Bahai. The first distribution was on March 20 and 21 to the 5,000 refugees registered at that time, but the numbers have swelled since a new influx of refugees began to the area in early April.
Despite continuing attempts to assist these refugees, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said at a news briefing in Geneva Tuesday, "We are extremely concerned about the ongoing challenges we and our partners are facing in what is one of the most difficult humanitarian operations anywhere."
The vast, insecure and remote area of operations presents a major security and logistical problem. Since early last year, the Sudanese refugees have been living in a 600-km stretch of border between Sudan and Chad, where they are vulnerable to regular militia incursions from Sudan. The latest cross-border attack took place last Wednesday in Djangar villa, 7 km from Birak in the central part of the affected border stretch.
In addition to the insecurity, the refugees also have to battle the harsh weather and terrain in a semi-desert region that is barely within reach of humanitarian assistance. Trucks carrying relief aid or relocating refugees to inland camps have to travel long distances on bad roads. If they get stuck in the sand or break down along the way, it could be days before they can be repaired. They also risk being attacked by bandits when travelling at night.
The approaching rainy season has made the situation more urgent. UNHCR is working to relocate as many refugees as possible to camps before the end of the month, when rains will make the roads impassable for trucks and possibly cut off access to the remote border areas.
Together with WFP, UNHCR is working to pre-position food supplies in camps before the rains arrive. But there are fears that because the refugees' planting season is currently being interrupted, they will have no harvest and will be completely dependent on external food aid.
Another problem is the shortage of water in the arid area at a time when the refugee population is growing in camps. It also makes it hard for UNHCR and its partners to find suitable relocation sites for refugees still living on the border.
Redmond also raised the problem of firewood and fuel. Because of the continuing refugee influx, the few trees that are available in the desert have been stripped bare to provide firewood for cooking. Environmental concerns aside, this also means that UNHCR may have to start trucking in firewood from elsewhere, which could dramatically increase operational costs.
Compounding all these challenges is the fact that funding has not been forthcoming for the humanitarian operation in Chad. "So far, we have only received about $14 million of the $21 million needed for this urgent operation," said the UNHCR spokesman. "Given the continuing seriousness of the situation in Darfur, it is certainly possible that we'll have to increase our planning figure for this operation in eastern Chad to more than the current 110,000."