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28 July 2004

Sudanese Refugees in Chad Surviving under Extreme Conditions

United States appeals for urgent, coordinated donor response

By Wendy Lubetkin
Washington File European Correspondent

Geneva -- Responding to the growing needs of an estimated 200,000 Sudanese refugees who have fled into the desert regions of eastern Chad will require a "tremendous effort" by the international community, according to a top U.S. refugee official.

"The situation in Chad is very extreme," Linda Thomas-Greenfield, deputy assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, told a July 28 press conference at the United Nations in Geneva. Malnutrition and diarrheal diseases are on the rise and water supplies are inadequate, she charged.

Aid workers -- living under very difficult conditions themselves -- are struggling to deliver aid to refugees in Chad, but without additional assistance from international donors they will not be able to meet the growing needs there, she said.

Thomas-Greenfield, who had just returned from a one-week monitoring trip to Chad, was in Geneva to discuss the situation with humanitarian agencies and to encourage donor countries to contribute generously to the cash-strapped relief operation.

The United States is by far the largest donor in Chad, providing 50 to 60 percent of the funding for relief efforts there, Thomas-Greenfield noted, adding that the burden of support needs to be shared more broadly.

Thomas-Greenfield said it is difficult to predict how many additional refugees might arrive in Chad. "The hope is that humanitarian corridors in Darfur will open up so that people do not feel they need to cross the border into Chad to get assistance and protection."

Currently between 200 and 300 refugees are arriving at the border each day. Others may have been prevented from crossing because of insecurity in the region or because of the rains, she said. UNHCR has developed contingency plans for an additional 100,000.

Thomas-Greenfield said delivering food to the refugees in eastern Chad presents one of the "most difficult logistics operations" she has ever witnessed. "The roads are not very good. The rainy season has started. Many of the large trucks cannot traverse the roads during the rainy season. The distances are very, very long."

In the desert where the 11 refugee camps are located, water is "probably the most urgent need," she added. "Without water, all kinds of other problems result, health and sanitation problems."

UNHCR standards call for 15 liters of water per person per day, but some camps in Chad have been able to provide only around six liters per person and, at one camp that Thomas-Greenfield visited, a broken generator meant the refugees would receive no water that day.

Malnutrition and diarrheal illnesses are also on the rise among the refugee population, especially the children, she noted.

Another serious concern is the fact that around 80 percent of the refugees are either women or children. The presence of so many unaccompanied women means that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will need to address some special protection issues, Thomas-Greenfield said. "Women are going out collecting wood alone. Women are home alone with small children."

Thomas-Greenfield said she was particularly struck by the situation of aid workers in Chad who have been living under extremely difficult conditions, some sleeping outdoors without shelter at night. They are "devoting themselves to providing assistance to refugees twenty-four hours a day, and devoting very little attention to their own needs," she said. "Many of them were living without shelter, without water, without food."

She noted that the Chadian government has been "extremely hospitable to refugees, providing land for the camps."

"The communities surrounding the refugee camps have been very open and generous with their support, but these communities are very fragile themselves, living on the edge, in an environment that is very difficult to survive in. ... I think development agencies will also need to look at the situation of the surrounding Chadian communities."

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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