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UN Issues Plea for Central Africa Refugees

Central Africa refugees struggle in the Gado Badzere, Cameroon, not far from the border with Central Africa.

More than two years of violence has driven thousands of Central Africans into Cameroon and relief workers say they are still not getting enough support from the rest of the world to deal with this growing humanitarian crisis.

The U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are now more than 150,000 of them living in camps and villages in eastern Cameroon. With 3,000 to 5,000 new arrivals every week, the number could reach a staggering 200,000 by the end of the year.

Relief workers fear with those increased numbers, they won’t be able to meet the growing needs of refugees because response to the crisis has remained largely under-funded. “Without resources we would not be able to do anything, whether it’s food assistance or shelter assistance,” says Kyung-wha Kang, the U.N. assistant secretary-general and deputy emergency relief coordinator.

The view from Gado Badzere

Kang recently completed a seven-day tour of humanitarian operations in Cameroon and the Central African Republic. It took her to Gado Badzere camp in eastern Cameroon, about 26 kilometers from the main border crossing for Central African refugees.

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At the camp, refugees live in neat rows of white tents. Women cook food in the open air, and children seldom go to school. Malaria and malnutrition have afflicted thousands. Water and sanitation services are below the accepted minimum.

Conditions in this and other camps have been slipping since the crisis started more than two years ago, when Seleka forces ousted President Francois Bozize.

Kang says other problems in the world are giving this crisis a tough competition. “Increasingly, we are in situations where the donors, with so many crises around the world these days, are increasingly stretched,” she says.

“That means we have to make an extra effort to show the value of our work, that we are actually making every dollar stretch. Humanitarians have to demonstrate the effectiveness of our efforts on behalf of the affected populations.”

Home is still not what it used to be

Even though conditions are not the best and things may be getting better in the Central Africa Republic, returning home is not yet an option for the refugees.

Kang says the situation there is still combustible. “Inside the country, the overall appearance is one of stability and calm, at least in Bangui.

“But my sense is that beyond that surface level calm is vulnerability, because you have arms everywhere, even among internally displaced people. Things are quite, quite explosive.”

The influx of refugees has worsened a humanitarian crisis that was already affecting impoverished communities in parts of Cameroon. According to the United Nations, at least two million people need assistance, particularly in the north of the country.

Repeated cycles of draughts and floods have created food insecurity, malnutrition and disease outbreaks in affected regions. Local officials are now concerned that such precarious conditions are already being over-stretched in refugee host communities.

Nigerian refugees add to the burden

In addition to Central Africans, more than 40,000 Nigerians who have fled Boko Haram have sought refuge in northern Cameroon. They too need help. “The resources are limited and there are more resources needed, however you count it,” says Kang.

“My purpose is to keep the focus on the humanitarian response and the needs of the refugee community, as well as other refugee communities as a consequence of the conflict in the CAR.”

The cost of the humanitarian relief has more than doubled in a year. In 2014, U.N. agencies needed $126 million. This year, the projection is $264 million.

The government of Cameroon has provided security and land to build camps but little else. That leaves the future of refugees in the hands of national and international relief organizations. But with little funding coming in, that future is difficult to guarantee.