Catastrophic tide of refugees swamps Chad

This article first appeared in De Standaard

Brussels - Thousands of refugees are flooding into Eastern Chad, fleeing the fighting between the government and the rebels in the Sudanese region of Darfur. Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) has warned of a possible humanitarian disaster.

MSF says that the refugees are mainly women and children. At first they were looked after by the local population, but they are no longer able to deal with the growing influx.

UNHCR, the United Nations organisation for refugees, reports that at least 70,000 people have crossed the border and hundreds of Sudanese are continuing to enter Chad every day. They are present in among 20 locations in the border region, especially around the villages of Tiné and Birak.

North-eastern Chad is dry and desert-like, warns MSF, and the food situation can be problematic at the best of times. The refugees, who are without shelter, also have to cope with the harsh climate of high day-time temperatures and cold nights. It is also still the rainy season, bringing the added risk of illness among the refugee population.

MSF, that has an exploration team on the spot, says that there is not yet an immediate threat of epidemic or starvation, but the situation could deteriorate rapidly if no help comes. There is no reception structure for the refugees and the local health centres have no more resources. The most important problems at present are chest infections and diarrhoea.

MSF has therefore sent 11 aid workers to Chad. Yesterday (August 17) evening, a charter plane left Ostend with 42 tons of material on board, including medical and sanitary equipment and medicines. The volunteers will set up health care posts in the villages of Tine and Birak.

In Darfur in Western Sudan there has been conflict for years between the nomadic stock farmers, who are mainly of Arabic origin, and the sedentary crop farmers, usually of Central African origin. At the beginning of the year the military wing of the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM) took up arms against the government, accusing it of being unable to protect the farming communities in Darfur.

At the beginning of September a cease-fire was agreed in Chad between the SLM and the Sudanese Government, but it did not last long.

Sudan also has to deal with a civil war in the south. Peace talks are starting now in Kenya to try and resolve this conflict.

Chad, a poor country, is also providing shelter in the south for refugees fleeing the Central African Republic. MSF is active in that area too.