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UNHCR: Conditions Worsen for Central African Refugees in Chad - 2003-02-21

A team of aid workers from the United Nations refugee agency is in Chad investigating a refugee crisis. The workers say thousands of people from the neighboring Central African Republic have come to Chad in recent weeks to escape fighting.

The U.N. refugee agency says the aid workers who traveled to southern Chad this week found more than 6,000 Central Africans, as well as some Chadians, living in desperate conditions, having neither shelter nor food.

A spokeswoman for the agency, Millicent Mutuli, says the refugees told the aid workers they had run away after a fresh offensive by the Central African government against rebels in the north of that country.

"The Central Africans on the one hand are saying they fled because of rebel actions against them," she noted. "They say rebels took over many parts of northern Central Africa and were looting, killing people. In some instances, the refugees were mentioning that people were killed because they would not surrender their belongings. You know, goats, chickens and basically that situation became untenable and some of them had to leave."

Ms. Mutuli said the Chadians who are with the refugees are in a particularly difficult situation. She explained many of them have lived in the Central African Republic for decades and have lost all links with their native country.

"They need assistance to help those who can identify their home areas. And, so we will work with other U.N. agencies to help transport people back," she said. "But, we certainly have to look closely at the plight of those who come back, and who do not necessarily have links and can identify those links with Chad. Their situation is a very confused one at the moment."

Ms. Mutuli said the UNHCR team that went to Chad this week found the refugees and Chadians in great need of assistance. She said the U.N. agency is working with Chadian authorities to develop a site where the refugees can be housed in decent conditions.

Meanwhile, the refugees keep coming. Agency officials estimate that since the beginning of the year, 20,000 people have fled from Central African Republic to Chad and about 500 more refugees arrive each day.