CAR: The Fate of Refugees in Southern Chad
CAR: The Fate of Refugees in Southern Chad
Fixing the army is key for CAR’s stability
Fixing the army is key for CAR’s stability
Commentary / Africa 6 minutes

CAR: The Fate of Refugees in Southern Chad

Thibaud Lesueur, Crisis Group’s Central Africa analyst, recently visited refugee camps in Southern Chad to assess the fate of refugees and the regional impact of CAR’s crisis.

Since the March 2013 coup, the Central African Republic (CAR) crisis has driven approximately 240,000 people from their homes to Cameroon and Chad. This is, of course, not the first time the region has witnessed a refugee crisis. In the last two decades, many Central Africans have sought refuge in Southern Chad from violence perpetrated either by CAR’s infamous presidential guard or by armed groups and bandits. However, the violence in this current conflict, with its deeply worrying intercommunal tensions, could spill into southern Chad itself. Already, the influx of CAR refugees, mostly Muslims, some coming with their cattle to a region mostly populated by farmers, increases competition over natural resources and makes cohabitation between locals and newcomers ever more difficult.

Refugees and returnees

Since the beginning of the crisis in 2013, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has registered more than 113,000 individuals seeking refuge in the Chadian capital, Ndjamena, as well as in camps and villages in Southern Chad. Some are “Chadian returnees“who had lived in CAR for several generations. Some travelled by truck or on planes sent by Chadian authorities. The less fortunate travelled on foot. Humanitarian organisations were initially overwhelmed by refugee flows at the start of 2014 and are still under-resourced. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), out of the $127 million requested to respond to the CAR crisis in Chad, only $30 million have been provided. The border closure by the Chadian government in May 2014 further complicated access for refugees. Chad declared it would reopen the border and create a humanitarian corridor, but the corridor is far away from populated areas, with no roads, making it very difficult for NGOs to access.

My sons and my wife were killed, I couldn’t save them. I fled to Cameroon before coming to Chad to meet my brother.

The most dramatic situations concern the refugees who have walked from CAR. Following weeks or, in some instances, months trekking by foot, harassed by anti-balaka militias, they arrive exhausted and scattered, with many mourning the loss of family members as they fled the civil war: “My sons and my wife were killed, I couldn’t save them. I fled to Cameroon before coming to Chad to meet my brother” (refugee from Bouar, April 2014). According to a recent report released by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Central African Refugees in Chad and Cameroon: “Suitcase or Coffin“, the last wave of refugees in Cameroon and Chad crossed the border in poor health and many suffer from malnutrition.

The Southern Chad camps offer a good sample of the diversity of the CAR people affected by the crisis: civil servants, herders with or without their cattle, farmers, merchants and their families, diamond dealers, professors, students and even former Seleka rebels. Many Fulanis (Mbororo, Uda, Sankara and Jaafun) targeted in the bush with their cattle by the anti-balaka are in the camps. Others, such as Misseriya or Salamat Arab traders who lost everything during days of anti-balaka lootings, are also camped with them. Finally, there are, to a lesser extent, some Kaba and Gbaya people from farming communities who fled the violence of Seleka militiamen. It is complicated to determine who is Chadian and who is Central African; the CAR people and the “Chadian returnees” rarely have identity cards, and among the latter many claim Central African citizenship or deny Chadian connections.

Safety and vengeance

So far security problems related to these camps have been contained, but tensions are emerging. The camps tend to be organised and structured along communitarian lines or according to social stratifications. In Dosseye camp, the people from Bangui, often better educated and mostly former traders, stick together: “Over there, they are people from Bangui; they despise us” (refugee, coming from Paoua, arrived in Dosseye camp in April 2014).

Organising the camps and deciding who will be the refugees’ representatives rekindle old power struggles from back home. Rivalries between herders (mostly Fulanis living in the bush) and traders (mainly Arabs living in towns) have resurfaced in southern Chad. “Because the camp’s delegates are Arab, they always put us aside”, confides a Fulani. “We can’t be represented by illiterate Fulanis,” replies an Arab trader. Yet, so far, tensions have not escalated into violence.

In Southern Chad, Fulanis from CAR now coexist with Chadian pastoralists who shortened their transhumance in CAR because of the conflict and tensions with the local CAR population. As a result, on the Chadian side competition over resources and disputes between farmers and pastoralists are rising. The arrival of new herds and the blockage of transhumance to CAR in the dry season risk overgrazing pasturelands and generating disputes between locals and newcomers. “Authorities block us,” said a refugee from Bouca, who arrived in Sido in March. “It’s not us who decide where we have to go, it’s our cattle. If we stay, our cows are going to die. Furthermore, militaries want to disarm us even though we need our weapons to defend ourselves”. In Mtiboye, a city set on a traditional transhumance route and nowadays used as a transit area by herders fleeing conflict, a representative of the local authority notes: “We can’t control the herders. Maybe some of them will go through Cameroon, maybe others will cross the border. It’s difficult to contain them”.

The temptation to avenge is high in the camps. So far, Chad’s armed forces have kept the peace, but incidents are frequent. In Mbitoye, the inhabitants talk of cattle raids over the border by the anti-balaka early 2014 and evidence of cross-border movements by young armed herders who are refugees in Chad seeking revenge were observed. The border closure in May reduced these movements but, as one refugee, a student in Dosseye camp, noted: “Each week we see young people reach CAR to get enlisted in armed groups”. Small groups of youths are attracted by the financial gains of joining armed groups: “In the camp, it is said that we can make 75,000 FCFA ($145) if we join the Seleka” (refugee, Dosseye camp). This is corroborated by members of the Chadian unit for the protection of refugees and aid workers, but they feel that the numbers crossing the border to fight are very few.

Aware of this phenomenon, Chad’s president, Idriss Déby, visited the region in May and warned those tempted by revenge. Since then, Chadian authorities have been trying to disarm the pastoralists and raise awareness among the youth, but it is not easy. In Goré, the authorities admit they are struggling with a tense situation: “In Danamadja, young people may be very aggressive and very spiteful. We are managing a dissatisfied and angry population and we do not have the capacity to do so”.

Going home

The desire to return varies among CAR’s refugees. In Sido and Danamadja, some Arab Central African traders say that they lost everything and do not want to set foot again in CAR. Many of them intend to start businesses in Chad and are confident about finding a place in Chad’s economic and social fabric: “If there is security, we will manage to start again from here. We will go to Sarh or Moundou” (“returnee”, coming from Bangui, arrived in Sido in February 2014).

By contrast, most of the Central African Fulanis say they do not want to stay in Chad and will return home when it is safer. Many of them emphasise that they do not have any families in Chad, having never been to the country. In Danamadja camp, an old Central African Fulani who lost his herd spoke about new job prospects back home: “I have friends who work in the diamond trade and others in trade in general; I’ll see what I can do to work again”. All of them focus on how, before the crisis, they lived peacefully with their fellow citizens and regret that, as Muslims, they are seen as supporting Seleka. “They thought we were part of the Seleka because we are Muslims” confides a Fulani before adding, “If the crisis ends, we’ll go back to Central African Republic and we’ll start again like before”. While some refugees remain optimistic, others realise that given the level of violence in CAR, reconciliation will be a long and difficult process. Even their return home will take time.

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