Geneva — The U.N. refugee agency reports that more and more refugees from the troubled Central African Republic are arriving in Cameroon in desperate condition, with many of them sick and dying.
Aid workers in Cameroon are stepping up aid for the increasing number of refugees who arrive from the C.A.R. sick from hunger and exhaustion, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It says the refugees have been on the road for up to seven weeks without food or clean water. About 80 percent of the newest arrivals suffer from malaria, diarrhea, and respiratory infections and more than 20 percent of the children are malnourished.
UNHCR spokeswoman Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba said the new arrivals recount nightmarish stories about the atrocities being committed in C.A.R. They tell aid workers they were forced to hide in the bush for long periods in fear of being killed by anti-balaka militiamen who were targeting Muslims in revenge attacks.
She said the refugees say they had no choice but to flee for their lives despite the hardships they have encountered en route to Cameroon.
"Many have lost relatives to hunger along the way or shortly after reaching Cameroon. They are also very much traumatized by the horrors they experienced in northwestern C.A.R., Lejeune-Kaba said. As an example, we have one refugee who said that he could no longer eat meat because he had seen someone being killed and cut into pieces by the anti-Balaka. A woman has lost six of her nine children in the bushes after seven weeks. And, this is a woman whose husband was also killed by the anti-Balaka," she added.
Lejeune-Kaba said 16 refugees died after reaching Cameroon in January and February, including six from severe malnutrition. Despite emergency treatment, she said they could not be saved.
Since the crisis has accelerated in the C.A.R, about 9,000 Chadians who were in the country have fled to Kenzou in Cameroon. The UNHCR spokeswoman says 33 children who have arrived there have died. She says 20 are Chadians. The identity of the 13 others is unknown.
Lejeune-Kaba told VOA it is not unusual to have refugees arriving in a country of asylum exhausted, sick and hungry. But, she said the extremely dire condition of the C.A.R. refugees upon arrival is not normal.
"We do have cases in refugee situations where people travel long distances and come exhausted for sure. We have seen it with the Sudanese who are fleeing from the Blue Nile, for example, coming into South Sudan. But, we did not systematically hear about losing family members along the way, the way we are hearing from the C.A.R. refugees now," she said.
The UNHCR reports more than 44,250 refugees from the C.A.R. have fled to Cameroon since March 2013. That is when Muslim Seleka forces seized the capital, Bangui and ousted the government.
The agency said new arrivals are living with host families or are sheltering in mosques, churches, a stadium, or in makeshift sites. Some are sleeping out in the open. In an effort to head off more deaths, the UNHCR says it is increasing assistance in border areas and posting nutrition specialists, site planners and other emergency staff.