N'djamena — In the past three months, the government of Chad has evacuated about 16,000 people to N'Djamena from the Central African Republic amid mounting violence and religious persecution in the neighbouring country.
Most of those brought to the Chad capital have been Chadian nationals or refugees, but more than 1,000 are from the Central African Republic and some other countries, mainly educated people from urban areas.
They managed to board flights out of Bangui during the confusion of evacuation. These flights were suspended by Chad on February 20, but people continue to arrive overland.
UNHCR and the National Commission for the Reception and Reintegration of Refugees and Returnees have been interviewing and pre-registering these people at eight transit centres in N'Djamena, including the Transit Centre No. 3 in the city's Paris-Congo area.
"Many have already left, but many have no place to go," said Dario Neloumia, who heads the crowded centre, while adding that it currently hosts about 600 people.
The refugee agency facilitates transfer to refugee camps in southern Chad for those who want it, such as 35-year-old Yaya, who worked for a multinational in Bangui to help put him through a Sociology degree as a mature student. "I have a year to go," said the Central African, a Muslim like most of those who have fled to Chad.
Those who don't want to go to camps like Dosseye near the southern border with Central African Republic can remain in N'Djamena, living with host families or in rented accommodation. The government is considering opening special sites for those who wish to stay but cannot afford to. UNHCR staff monitor all registered refugees.
The conditions in Transit Centre No. 3, or TC3, are not great, but at least the new arrivals feel safe and far away from the violence and danger in Bangui, where hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and many are in need. Several other countries have evacuated their nationals, while UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration have repatriated hundreds of refugees so far this year.
There is a pungent odour of human waste in TC3. Children are everywhere and women sit on straw mats guarding the few possessions they have managed to save: bedding, pots, battered or broken suitcases.
Yaya was able to board one of the evacuation flights by chance after being sent to the airport by his company to help load an air shipment.
"There were thousands of people waiting to get on a plane," he recalled. "I was loading luggage and managed to stay on a cargo flight carrying Chadian property from the embassy [in Bangui] back to N'Djamena."
Like many others, Yaya would like to return home one day. "Right now, there is too much hatred and fighting," he said. "I saw a message on Facebook from someone I know at home. It said, 'Now that you Muslims are out, we feel like real Central Africans.' How can we live together like this?"
For now, Yaya has decided to transfer to a camp. "I need to settle first and think things through. I will probably have to come back to N'Djamena to find a job," he said, adding that he would need to earn a living to support himself and members of his extended family, who are expected to arrive in southern Chad soon. His wife is also in N'Djamena, but in a different transit centre, and they hope to reunite in Dosseye camp.
Yaya is one of the many urban educated who have arrived in Chad, adding a new dimension to the profile of the Central African Republic refugee population, which consists largely of farmers and livestock herders in the camps of the south.
Nurses, students, teachers, NGO workers and many others are among those who have recently arrived from Bangui. UNHCR is exploring appropriate ways to assist this group of skilled personnel, including through education and employment opportunities.
"If we seize the opportunity and let refugees put their skills to use, not only will they quickly regain their dignity and independence, but they will also be able to contribute to the development of their new environment," Aminata Gueye, UNHCR's representative in Chad, stressed.
*Name changed for protection reasons.