UNHCR chief puts spotlight on Central African refugees in Cameroon

News Stories, 5 March 2010

© UNHCR/F.Kpatindé
UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres receives gifts bananas and a small drum from the Mbororo refugees in Bolembe.

BERTOUA, Cameroon, March 5 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has visited Mbororo refugees from the Central African Republic in a bid to focus world attention on the "forgotten tragedy" of these people sheltering in Cameroon.

Guterres met and talked to some of the refugees during visits this week to Mandjou and Boulembe settlements, which are located 350 kilometres east of the Cameroon capital, Yaoundé, and together house some 3,000 refugees.

"I am here to show my gratitude to the people and government of Cameroon [for hosting more than 100,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from about 30 countries, including 80,880 from the neighbouring Central African Republic]," Guterres said during his visit to Mandjou, where he received a colourful welcome.

The High Commissioner stressed that he had also decided to visit the Central African refugees "to draw the attention of the international community to the forgotten tragedy of the Mbororo refugees." Guterres said he hoped that peace and democracy would be restored in their country, which he was due to visit from Friday.

The Mbororos are mainly nomadic cattle breeders from the west and north-west of the Central African Republic. Those fleeing to Cameroon since 2005 say that their people have been targeted by organized groups of bandits and rebels who steal their cattle and kidnap their women and children for ransom.

They live in dozens of settlements in eastern Cameroon, making it difficult for UNHCR staff based in the town of Bertoua to monitor their situation, register new arrivals and distribute aid. The government of Cameroon recognizes this population as prima facie refugees.

During his visit to the settlement at Bolembe, home to some 1,150 Mbororos, Guterres expressed his admiration for the refugees, who told him that they lived in peaceful co-existence with the local population. "We have been living together for several years, sharing water, classrooms and infrastructure," refugee Aliou Nassé told him.

Guterres also met Hadja Adama, a dignified mother of 11 with a harrowing story. Aged 45, she looks much older after a life of hardship. She fled to Boulembe five years ago with her children after her husband was killed in the Central African Republic by cattle rustlers. She now struggles to raise her children as well as the four offspring of her brother, who died suddenly after a short illness.

Guterres was clearly moved by her story. "It is a shame that such tragedy goes unnoticed. It is urgent to make the international community face its responsibilities. These people have gone through an unimaginable ordeal," he said. "And the end of the tunnel is not near because there is no sign that the security situation has improved enough for people to think about returning to the Central African Republic."

A UNHCR registration exercise conducted last October testified to a steady influx and an increase in the number of refugees from across the border over the previous year.

In Cameroon, their host country, problems also exist. The refugees and their host communities join their voices to complain about shortages of clean water, not enough classrooms and the distance of health clinics. "These are problems we are trying to solve with our limited resources," said Aida Haile Mariam, UNHCR's representative in Cameroon. "The High Commissioner's visit is an opportunity to further draw the attention of the international community to the plight of the Central African refugees."

Before heading to Central African Republic, Guterres held talks with senior Cameroonian officials, including President Paul Biya and Prime Minister Philemon Yang.

By Francis Kpatindé in Bertoua, Cameroon

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The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

Crisis in the Central African Republic

Little has been reported about the humanitarian crisis in the northern part of the Central African Republic (CAR), where at least 295,000 people have been forced out of their homes since mid-2005. An estimated 197,000 are internally displaced, while 98,000 have fled to Chad, Cameroon or Sudan. They are the victims of fighting between rebel groups and government forces.

Many of the internally displaced live in the bush close to their villages. They build shelters from hay, grow vegetables and even start bush schools for their children. But access to clean water and health care remains a huge problem. Many children suffer from diarrhoea and malaria but their parents are too scared to take them to hospitals or clinics for treatment.

Cattle herders in northern CAR are menaced by the zaraguina, bandits who kidnap children for ransom. The villagers must sell off their livestock to pay.

Posted on 21 February 2008

Crisis in the Central African Republic

Silent Success

Despite being chased from their homes in the Central African Republic and losing their livelihoods, Mbororo refugees have survived by embracing a new way of life in neighbouring Cameroon.

The Mbororo, a tribe of nomadic cattle herders from Central African Republic, started fleeing their villages in waves in 2005, citing insecurity as well as relentless targeting by rebel groups and bandits who steal their cattle and kidnap women and children for ransom.

They arrived in the East and Adamaoua provinces of Cameroon with nothing. Though impoverished, the host community welcomed the new arrivals and shared their scant resources. Despite this generosity, many refugees died of starvation or untreated illness.

Help arrived in 2007, when UNHCR and partner agencies began registering refugees, distributing food, digging and rehabilitating wells as well as building and supplying medical clinics and schools, which benefit refugees and the local community and promote harmony between them. The Mbororo were eager to learn a new trade and set up farming cooperatives. Though success didn't come immediately, many now make a living from their crops.

Mbororo refugees continue to arrive in Central African Republic - an average of 50 per month. The long-term goal is to increase refugees' self-reliance and reduce their dependency on humanitarian aid.

Silent Success

Shared Experience Binds Hosts and Refugees Across the Oubangui River

The Oubangui River is a vital source of food and water for the hundreds of thousands living along its 1,000-kilometre-long course, and many rely on it for transport, trade and agriculture. The river, forming the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with Central African Republic and Republic of Congo, has also been a life-saving bridge to safety for people fleeing the waves of violence that plague this deprived region - and a route back home when peace returns. This year, more than 40,000 terrified people have fled conflict in Central African Republic and crossed the river to find shelter in DRC's Equateur and Oriental provinces. Here they have received a warm welcome from the local people, many of whom know exactly what it is like to be a refugee. Time and again, newly arrived refugees from CAR seek out people they once hosted in Bangui and other places along the river. And these old friends are offering them and their families places in already cramped homes, and sharing their meagre resources. Photographer Brian Sokol recently travelled to Equateur province to document the extraordinary bond between the refugees and host communities. These are some of his striking portraits of hosts and their guests. They know that one day their roles could be reversed by the ebb and flow of violence.

Shared Experience Binds Hosts and Refugees Across the Oubangui River

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