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Central African refugees in Chad "neglected"

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afrol News, 26 April - While international attention is focused on the crisis of Darfur refugees in eastern Chad, the plight of tens of thousands of refugees from the Central African Republic fleeing ethnic violence into Chad "has gone largely unnoticed," a rights group today laments. The majority of these refugees share the same ethnicity as ex-President Ange-Félix Patassé, and have therefore been specifically targeted by the present Central African government for attacks.

Advocates Sally Chin and Kristele Younes of the US-based group Refugees International (RI) recently visited southern Chad, looking into the situation to the growing number of refugees from the Central African Republic. It soon became clear to them that these refugees were largely "neglected" by the international society, as is the ethnic conflict fuelled by Central African coup leader François Bozizé.

From June to December 2005, more than 12,000 Central African refugees arrived in southern Chad, adding to a pre-existing refugee population of 30,000. In the last few months alone, close to 5,000 have continued to come to Chad, escaping fighting between rebel groups and the governmental republican guard. Many speak of an "ethnic cleansing" of those belong to ex-President Patassé's ethnicity. General Bozizé overthrew President Patassé in a coup in March 2003.

The humanitarian crisis is equally disturbing in northern Central African Republic. According to one of the few aid agencies present there, there are also more than 30,000 internally displaced persons hiding in the forests, living off grasses and roots. There is little to no UN presence in northern Central African Republic, as the area is considered too dangerous for international staff. Very few humanitarian agencies are operating in the area, leaving the population extremely vulnerable, the RI activists found.

In March, RI visited the Chadian villages of Bekan and Bedakassan, on the border with the Central African Republic. Thousands of refugees were waiting there to be screened by the UN's refugee agency UNHCR and transferred to the refugee camps of Amboko and Gondje, near the southern town of Goré.

Many of the refugees had been waiting at the border for several weeks, living under trees and receiving no assistance from the aid community. One angry man told RI, "My family and I have been here for two months. We live like animals and sleep under trees. Here, at the border, we are too close to the Central African Republic and are scared. We want to be transferred to the camps now."

An ally of the Bozizé regime, the Chadian government has also been reportedly reluctant to react quickly to the new refugee influx, thereby impeding the work of aid agencies. Under-funded and understaffed, the UN lacks resources to handle this crisis. UNHCR only has two staff members dealing with protection issues for the Amboko and Gondje refugee camps, the prisons, and the border and is unable to screen and transfer refugees in a timely fashion.

As a result of these delays, local impoverished Chadian communities have had to share their scarce resources with the newly arrived, causing a shortage in both food and drinking water. This situation has created serious tensions between refugees and the host communities, mostly living in misery. With little hope of their living conditions improving, many Chadians reportedly even try to pass themselves off as refugees to benefit from assistance.