The refugees, many of whom fled fighting in the CAR in early June with nothing but the clothes on their backs, are currently scattered among 17 villages near the Chadian town of Gore. With the onset of the rainy season, UNHCR and its partners fear the refugees may soon be cut off from help, making it all the more urgent that they be consolidated in a single, accessible site.
Pending their relocation, UNHCR has been distributing emergency plastic sheeting, blankets and high-protein biscuits provided by UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) to the refugees. Chadian villagers are also offering what help they can. The refugees have been living in flimsy, makeshift shelters built of leaves and sticks. Most brought no food, and many children and women are showing signs of malnourishment. They are drinking local river water and there is no proper sanitation.
"The only food we have is what can find in the forest - that is roots, wild fruit and leaves," said one refugee father of five.
"We need food and medicine," added a refugee woman as she waited in line to see a nurse in a mobile clinic at a village outside Gore. "Our children are sick and hungry."
UNHCR and its partners hope to relocate the refugees to a central site where assistance can be more easily provided. By mid-July, wide areas of the region will be cut off by flooding. The most likely site is at Amboko camp near Gore. Amboko already hosts some 13,000 CAR refugees and could take up to 27,000. It can also provide health care services, water and sanitation facilities.
"We will need to move fast," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told a Geneva news briefing. "UNHCR Chad is deploying 11 logisticians, field officers, protection officers and extra drivers to help our Gore office with the operation."
The refugees fled northern CAR during the first three weeks of June following an incident between government forces and unidentified armed groups. No new arrivals have been reported since June 21. Although no new attacks have been reported since the June 3 incident in northern CAR, the refugees say they have no intention - at least for now - of returning to their villages anytime soon. About 3,000 of the refugees have gathered in a makeshift camp near the Chadian village of Betel.
"We're caught between a rock and a hard place," said one refugee man who arrived three weeks earlier. "I'm not interested in returning to my village with my family. We don't know what could happen."
Recent rains have forced some refugees to wade across swollen rivers to reach UNHCR's distribution site. Diarrhoea, malaria, eye infections, malnutrition and two cases of measles have been reported among the refugees and host populations. An immunization campaign is planned.
There are already 30,000 refugees from the Central African Republic in southern Chad. The majority of them arrived in 2003 after a military coup. They are staying in Amboko camp in Gore and Yaroungou camp in Danamadji. Chad is also hosting more than 200,000 Sudanese refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan who are currently housed in 12 camps in the east part of the country.
By Ginette Le Breton
In Gore, Chad