Remarks to the United Nations Security Council
António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 6 March 2014
Mr. President, Excellencies,
I do not remember any field visit in my 8-year tenure as High Commissioner that caused me such anguish as my recent trip to the Central African Republic. I was deeply shocked by the brutality and inhumanity that have characterized the violence happening in the country and its consequences on the suffering of the people.
The evolution of the Central African refugee situation in the region clearly illustrates that, while this is not a new crisis (the country has been in some sort of trouble since the beginning), its current phase is in no way "more of the same".
By end 2012, there were already 165,000 refugees registered in the neighbouring countries of Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. That number has by now grown to over 290,000.
Some 65,000 refugees fled last year, largely in the aftermath of the Séléka coup. Another 60,000 have sought refuge abroad since December 2013, when the violence grew to a horrific scale including with the emergence of the anti-Balaka militias. In addition, more than 80,000 foreign nationals have left the country, many with the help of States and IOM.
Cameroon hosts the largest Central African refugee population, with over 34,000 new arrivals since December and some 130,000 in total. The situation is dramatic, with refugees arriving scared, malnourished and extremely vulnerable after having walked and hidden in the forests for days and weeks. Many convoys to the border are attacked, and international forces are too thinly spread to be able to provide effective protection.
Once refugees cross the border, living conditions are extremely difficult. Local communities in all neighbouring countries have responded with enormous generosity, with faith leaders mobilizing donations from the local population and some families hosting up to 100 refugees in their compounds. In some locations, like Kentzou in eastern Cameroon, the number of refugees and repatriated nationals of other countries hosted there now exceeds the local population, creating enormous pressure on scarce resources and infrastructure. Humanitarian actors are scrambling to relocate refugees from scattered, difficult to reach locations along the border to sites with better assistance possibilities before they become cut off with the beginning of the rainy season.
But we are far from being able to deliver what is needed given the very precarious situation of the people we care for. The resources we have are entirely insufficient compared with the rapidly growing challenges we face. In Cameroon, as in other neighbouring countries, robust international financial support is required to respond to the enormous needs of the new arrivals and support the host communities that have so generously taken them in. I can say without exaggeration that we are dramatically underfunded, and have only been able to respond by using our own limited reserves.
UNHCR is also working within the interagency response inside CAR, leading the protection cluster as well as coordinating camp management and shelter programmes for the internally displaced. In addition, we are concerned for the safety of the over 17,000 refugees from other countries still in CAR, 70% of them from the DRC. We have been supporting the repatriation of those who wish to return from Bangui and Batalimo, and are assisting others in Bambari and Zémio, where they are not immediately under threat.
Allow me to convey some of my impressions from my recent visit to CAR, although they go beyond the scope of my immediate responsibilities as High Commissioner, as they clearly show, from a humanitarian perspective, the importance of supporting the Secretary-General's initiative.
Since independence the country has witnessed a succession of coups d'état, with only one democratic transition in the 1990s. The State had been progressively disappearing already long before events took a new dramatic turn with the emergence of the Séléka in late 2012. However, this new phase of the conflict differs starkly from the earlier crises, largely due to the way it is tearing apart the social fabric of the country.
Until last year, CAR was largely a stranger to religious conflict, which is why it would be wrong to analyze current events that way. While religiously motivated conflicts usually start out as faith being instrumentalized for political purposes, the real danger is that religious tensions then gain a dynamic of their own - a demon that, once unleashed, becomes exceedingly difficult to stop and threatens to completely destroy society.
This is what risks happening in CAR. The Séléka alliance was formed from Central African rebel groups and various foreign elements, and was indeed predominantly Muslim, although their political agenda had nothing to do with aspirations to create an Islamic state. But the interreligious and intercommunal dimension of the conflict emerged after the looting and atrocities against civilians committed by Séléka and ex-Séléka members, which were at the origin of the first refugee outflow of last year, and which in turn led to the emergence of the anti-Balaka militias.
In the beginning, the international community and actors on the ground was slow to understand that the process of disarming the Séléka changed the balance of forces on the ground, and that the anti-Balaka was quickly growing into a new "monster" with a different nature from the initial more or less spontaneous self-defense groups. Although it is mainly made up of frustrated youth, criminal elements, ex-soldiers and militias supporting the former president, and although its main motivations have become revenge and looting, it was quickly mislabeled as Christian, which fueled the interreligious dimension of the violence.
Since early December we have effectively witnessed a "cleansing" of the majority of the Muslim population in western CAR. Tens of thousands of them have left the country, the second refugee outflow of the current crisis, and most of those remaining are under permanent threat.
Just last week, there were about 15,000 people trapped in 18 locations in western CAR, surrounded by anti-Balaka elements and at very high risk of attack. International forces are present in some of these sites, but if more security is not made available immediately, many of these civilians risk being killed right before our eyes.
It is a glimmer of hope that in a few places, communities and courageous religious leaders are starting to take mediation into their own hands. The strengthening of the civilian capacity of BINUCA to support mediation efforts is an urgent and decisive need, and the Secretary-General insists on its importance. The demon of religious cleansing must be stopped - now.
To do this, the most important protection and humanitarian objective inside CAR is to reestablish security and law and order. This has been the focus of the Secretary-General's 6-point initiative. The immediate reinforcement of international forces, in particular with police contingents to ensure security in the neighbourhoods, is the biggest imperative. Another is immediate financial support to the government, to re-establish its capacity to function and put in place at least a basic police and justice system, able to arrest, try and jail criminals.
Current events in CAR can potentially destabilize the whole region. Continued brutality against Muslim communities could create a pretext for extremist terrorist forces, already present in other parts of the continent, to spread to its center.
While the violence has been concentrated in the West, we also must not forget the long-neglected East. There, the present leadership could easily be challenged, explaining some of the concerns that have been expressed over a possible fragmentation of the country that can and must be avoided. National and international efforts to respond to the current crisis therefore need to take into account all of CAR. They must also acknowledge that the reconstruction of a "disappeared" state is an intensive and time-consuming process, which must go far beyond calm being restored and elections taking place.
Thank you very much.