This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva. Further information can be found on the UNHCR website, www.unhcr.ch, which should also be checked for regular media updates on non-briefing days.
1) CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC / CHAD
A UNHCR team that traveled to southern Chad this week found more than 6,000 Central Africans and Chadians who had fled the Central African Republic following a fresh government offensive against rebels in the north of the country. Many of the Chadians forced to return to their country had been living in towns and villages in the north of the Central African Republic (CAR) for decades. The influx into southern Chad is continuing at the rate of 500 people per day. Those arriving in recent days are mainly Chadians.
The UNHCR team, from our office in CAR, travelled to villages in south-western Chad to verify reports of an influx. They found thousands of Central African refugees and returning Chadians living under desperate conditions in several border villages. Many had no food or shelter. The largest group was at Koumba, some 65 kms south-east of the south-western border town of Gore. The team found 3,520 Central African refugees, mainly from the small CAR town of Makourda, just on the other side of the border. The refugees told the UNHCR team that they had been forced to flee when rebels took over some areas in northern CAR, killing people and looting property. Some of the refugees at Koumba said they had left their homes in January.
The team visited three other sites, where they found some 2,800 Chadians who had fled after living in the CAR for decades. Many are traders and small-scale farmers. They complained that Chadians were being targetted in the latest round of conflict in the north of the Central African Republic. Many said they were headed for their areas of origin, primarily in Salamat prefecture, south-eastern Chad. Others said they had been out of Chad for decades and had lost all links with their home country. They said they did not know where to go.
The UNHCR team reported that there could be many more refugees and returnees in other border areas not visited. UNHCR is now working with Chadian authorities to develop a new site that has been identified by the government for the settlement of new refugees from CAR. The proposed site is 35 kms from the border, just north of the border town of Gore. Plans are also being made with the government of Chad and other UN agencies for the transportation of Chadians to their areas of origin.
In Ethiopia, where 107 Sudanese refugees were killed in a five-month spate of ethnic clashes last year, the government has identified a site to which UNHCR can move 24,500 refugees for their own protection. The new site, Odier, in western Ethiopia, was chosen based on its accessibility, proximity to administrative and security establishments, and the tribal composition of local residents. Most important, it was chosen with the consent of the refugees themselves, who want to move from the sprawling, insecure Fugnido camp.
The Ethiopian government has promised adequate security will be provided at the new site, and the UN Security Coordinator is now visiting the area to make sure the site is indeed safe for UNHCR and other aid agencies to serve it. At present, the road leading to the site is a "no-go" area for UN staff due to clan tensions in the region.
If the Odier site (74 kms from Gambella) is declared safe, it will cost UNHCR U.S. $1.8 million to turn it into a camp for 23,000 Nuers and Dinkas from Sudan. They asked UNHCR to relocate them after a particularly violent clash with Anuaks on Nov. 27, 2002, when 42 refugees were killed and many more wounded. The clashes left 46 children without one or both parents.
Fugnido camp for Sudanese refugees was opened in 1991 and there has been a long history of antagonisms between Anuaks and Nuers, both inside the camp and within the Ethiopian host community. Given that the history of revenge killings dates back to 1995, all the tribes involved agreed relocation of the Nuers and Dinkas was the only feasible solution. Their move would leave nearly 8,000 Anuaks at Fugnido, where they are happy to stay since they are surrounded by a local community of Anuaks. Following last November's violence, the Ethiopian government has arrested and brought to court those alleged to have carried out the killings.
UNHCR is set to close two temporary border sites that were established in western Burundi last October to shelter more than 10,000 Congolese refugees who fled a flare-up in fighting between two rebel movements in DRC's south Kivu region. The closure of these sites over the next weeks follows the completion of an operation to transfer all Congolese refugees from the border sites to Cishemeye - a safer inland camp in Burundi. The new camp, which now has some 5,746 Congolese refugees transferred from the two border sites, is in the north-western province of Cibitoke, some 40 kms from the Burundi/DRC border.
At Rugombo, one of the two sites slated for closure, we have dismantled all but two hangars that had been put up to shelter up to 6,000 refugees at the peak of the influx of Congolese refugees last November. The last two hangars will be taken down and the site closed after the transfer of some 140 people who were not registered with us as refugees and whose records are now being verified before possible transfer to Cishemeye. The second site to be closed is Gatumba. We have transferred all the Congolese refugees there to the new camp. This site will be closed as soon as nearly 600 Burundian returnees who came back from south Kivu following the conflict in October are re-integrated in their home districts. We are talking with government authorities about their re-integration.
Meanwhile, we continue to see some spontaneous returns to the south Kivu region. In the last few weeks, nearly 500 Congolese have returned to the Uvira area, which is relatively calm.