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UN Reports of Plight of Sudanese Refugees in Chad - 2003-09-05

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, says some 65,000 Sudanese refugees who fled to Chad in recent months are living in miserable conditions in the north and northeast of the country.

The exodus of Sudanese refugees to Chad began in April. But, the U.N. Refugee Agency says the Chadian government only recently alerted it to their presence.

UNHCR Spokeswoman, Milicent Mutuli, says the government delayed informing the agency because it thought that the number of people crossing the border was small, and it thought the people would return to Sudan as soon as the situation there stabilized.

But, Ms. Mutuli says it is now clear that the situation is more serious than had been previously thought.

"The numbers are large and it does not look like people are going to be able to go home very soon unless the fighting stops in Western Sudan," she said. "But, certainly, I think the first concern is that it is going to quickly turn into a humanitarian tragedy if nothing is done very quickly. The numbers are too large for the Chadian government to deal with."

The refugees are fleeing fighting between the Sudan Liberation Movement and Khartoum government forces in the Darfur region of western Sudan. The movement and the government signed a cease-fire agreement on Wednesday, but those rebels are not part of the peace process between the Sudan government and the larger rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

Refugees have told aid workers that the violence also has led to ethnic strife between Sudanese of Arab origin and those of African origin.

Ms. Mutuli says a team of U.N. aid workers who recently went to Chad to assess the situation found the refugees living in terrible conditions. As in other refugee situations, she says the majority of people who fled are women and children.

"People have nothing, utterly nothing," said Ms. Mutuli. "The border areas are really desert areas and there is not adequate shelter. There is not safe drinking water. There are no health facilities. There is real need for humanitarian intervention. The situation is desperate because of malaria, of illnesses like diarrhea and they do report that some children have died from malaria, from starvation, from dehydration."

The United Nations plans to send another mission to Chad early next week to assess food, water, health and other needs. Ms. Mutuli says whatever needs to be done, must be done quickly.