UNHCR tackles dire conditions for thousands of displaced in Central African Republic church

News Stories, 25 October 2013

© Boris Heger/Polaris
Colourfully dressed women and children arrive in Bossangoa after fleeing their homes. Living conditions are dire, but UNHCR and its partners are addressing the problem.

BANGUI, Central African Republic, October 25 (UNHCR) Sitting on an old stool in the shade of a tree, Mary calls out to UNHCR staff talking to her neighbours and complains about the living conditions in her new home.

"I want to be with my family in the new space you arranged," said the 40-year-old, who has been living in two tents with her husband and eight young children since fleeing her village last August and arriving in the town of Bossangoa, which is located in Central African Republic some 400 kilometres north-west of the capital, Bangui.

"There is no privacy here, and when our neighbour cooks we get all their smoke in our tent," added Mary in the grounds of Bossangoa's Roman Catholic church, which has acted like a magnet for some 37,000 people forced to flee fighting in the past two months between self-defence groups and members of a former rebel coalition in the north and west of the country.

There is a reek of humanity in the settlement, where sanitation and hygiene are big concerns. The displaced are living in dire conditions, but UNHCR and its partners are rushing to try and improve the situation there. The refugee agency has this week sent an expert of emergency shelter and a site planning officer to Bossangoa.

They are urgently needed. Although the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) has supplied plastic sheeting, people are crammed together in a tiny area, which poses a hazard to health and to the safety of people, especially women. Some people have brought along livestock, including goats and pigs. The World Food Programme distributed food earlier this month to people at the church, a hospital and school.

"These 37,000 displaced people are camping in an area of only five hectares," said Maurice Azonnankpo, a UNHCR protection officer in Bangui, while adding that this was 1.2 square metres per person against the recommended 4.5 square metres.

And they are likely to stay there for a while, as the situation remains tense and unstable in the area. In coordination with the local authorities, UNHCR has funded the construction of an extension to the church so that more people can stay there. The internally displaced say they feel safer on the grounds of the church and less liable to attack.

Local authorities have also asked UNHCR to help find or provide shelter in the town's Sous district as those will help to decongest the hospital (2,700 people) and the school (728) that people are using for shelter.

Since the latest political and displacement crisis in the Central African Republic began last December, the landlocked and poverty stricken country has been caught in a vicious cycle of violence that has seen some 400 people killed and 800 houses burned.

This violence has uprooted some 400,000 people within the country, and almost 70,000 CAR refugees have been registered in neighbouring countries including more than 43,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, almost 12,100 in Chad, some 9,200 in the Republic of Congo and above 4,280 in Cameroon. UNHCR teams in these countries are providing protection and assistance.

By Djerassem Mbaiorem in Bangui, Central African Republic

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2014: CAR refugees attacked as they flee to Cameroon

Each week 10,000 Muslims cross into eastern Cameroon to escape the violence consuming the Central African Republic (CAR). Many new arrivals report that they have been repeatedly attacked as they fled. The anti-Balaka militiamen have blocked main roads to Cameroon, forcing people to find alternate routes through the bush. Many are walking two to three months to reach Cameroon, arriving malnourished and bearing wounds from machetes and gunshots.

UNHCR and its partners have established additional mobile clinics at entry points to provide emergency care as refugees arrive. The UN refugee agency is also supporting public health centres that have been overwhelmed by the number of refugees and their condition.

Meanwhile, UNHCR has relocated some 20,000 refugees who had been living in the open in the Garoua Bouai and Kenzou border areas, bringing them to new sites at Lolo, Mborguene, Gado and Borgop in the East and Adamwa regions.

Since the beginning of the year, Cameroon has received nearly 70,000 refugees from CAR, adding to the 92,000 who fled in earlier waves since 2004 to escape rebel groups and bandits in the north of their country.

UNHCR staff members Paul Spiegel and Michele Poletto recently travelled to eastern Cameroon and have the following photos to share from their iPhone and camera.

2014: CAR refugees attacked as they flee to Cameroon

Central African Republic: Crossing the Oubangui to Home and Safety

The escalating violence in Central African Republic (CAR) has caught everyone in its web, including refugees from countries such as Chad, Cameroon and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). For the Congolese living in places like the CAR capital, Bangui, or the town of Batalimo, home was just a short trip away across the Oubangui River. UNHCR earlier this year agreed to help those who wished to repatriate due to fear for their safety. The refugee agency has since mid-January facilitated the return home of hundreds of these refugees. The following photographs, taken earlier this month by UNHCR staff members Dalia Al Achi and Hugo Reichenberger, depict the repatriation of a group of 364 Congolese. The refugees portrayed were heading to the riverside town of Zongo in Democratic Republic of the Congo's Equateur province, where they spent a night in a transit centre before continuing to their hometowns. They were relieved to be leaving, and some were in poor health. The decision to return to the country they had fled during the years of civil war from 1996-2003 was not easy. Some 6,000 of the 17,000 Congolese refugees in Central African Republic have registered with UNHCR to go home.

Central African Republic: Crossing the Oubangui to Home and Safety

The Most Important Thing: Central African Republic Refugees

Over the past year, the UN refugee agency has run a series of photosets on its website by American photographer Brian Sokol focusing on the possessions that refugees take with them when they are forced to flee from their homes. We started last August with Sudanese refugees in South Sudan and have since covered refugees from Syria and Mali.

Last year, Sokol visited the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to ask refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) the same question: What is the most important thing you brought with you? He again received interesting answers from a wide range of people from rural and urban areas of CAR, where inter-communal violence has spiralled out of control. They are featured here and include a sandal that helped an old woman, a pair of crutches used by a man to reach safety and a boy's photo of his slain father. Another boy named the family members who escaped to safety with him as his most important possession - many would feel the same.

Tens of thousands of people have fled from CAR to neighbouring countries since December 2012, including 60,000 into northern DRC. Some 30,000 of them live in four refugee camps set up by UNHCR and the others are hosted by local families. For the majority, there was no time to pack before escaping. They fled extreme violence and chaos and arrived exhausted and traumatized in the DRC. They could take only the most essential and lightest belongings. The photos here were taken at Batanga Transit Centre, Boyabo Refugee Camp and Libenge village.

The Most Important Thing: Central African Republic Refugees

UNHCR's Dr. Paul Spiegel on the Border of CAR  and CameroonPlay video

UNHCR's Dr. Paul Spiegel on the Border of CAR and Cameroon

This video was shot by one of our staff* using a mobile phone as they helped refugees who had crossed the river to safety.
Central African Republic: Torn CommunitiesPlay video

Central African Republic: Torn Communities

For more than a year, inter-communal strife has displaced tens of thousands of people in the Central African Republic. But amid the violence, efforts are being made to promote reconciliation.
Central African Republic : Bangui Airport RefugePlay video

Central African Republic : Bangui Airport Refuge

UNHCR's High Commissioner António Guterres visits Central African Republic and meets internally displaced people in Bangui airport. He says the international community needs to give the CAR crisis the same focus as the emergencies in Syria and South Sudan.