The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and its partners said today that they are stepping up efforts to help the growing numbers of Central African refugees arriving ill in Cameroon due to hunger and exhaustion during their arduous flight from the war-torn country.
According to UNHCR, most of the new arrivals from the Central African Republic (CAR) have spent weeks hiding in the bush without access to sufficient water and food and have walked great distances to reach safety in the eastern Cameroon. Most are fleeing anti-Balaka militiamen who have reportedly targeted Muslims in revenge attacks.
Thousands of people are believed to have been killed in the CAR and 2.2 million, about half the population, are in need of humanitarian aid as a result of the conflict, which erupted when Séléka rebels launched attacks in December 2012.
The fighting has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones as mainly Christian militias known as anti-Balaka (anti-machete) have taken up arms. The UN estimates that some 650,000 have been internally displaced, while nearly 300,000 other have fled to neighbouring countries, including Cameroon, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Republic of Congo.
An estimated 80 per cent of the refugees arriving in Cameroon are suffering from serious ailments such as malaria, diarrhoea, anaemia and respiratory infections, while more than 20 per cent of children are severely malnourished, said UNHCR spokesperson Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba in Geneva today.
Painting a grim picture of the situation, she said many lost relatives to hunger along the way or shortly after their arrival in Cameroon. They were also traumatized by the horrors they experienced in northwest CAR.
"One refugee could no longer eat meat after he witnessed someone being killed and cut into pieces by Anti-Balaka. A woman whose husband was shot by the anti-Balaka lost six of her nine children to hunger when they were in the bush for seven weeks without food," she said.
She went on to note that 16 refugees died after reaching Cameroon between January and February, including six from severe malnutrition. Their conditions were too advanced for them to be saved despite the emergency treatment received in local hospitals.
One of the challenges facing medical workers is that people do not realize how serious malnutrition is and the importance of going straight to UNHCR or its partners for help. "We have observed that many families with malnourished children do not come to health consultations," said Dago Inegba, a UNHCR doctor.
Since March 2013, Cameroon has received 44,252 refugees from the CAR. "New arrivals are living with host families or sheltering in mosques, churches, a stadium, or in makeshift sites. Ms. Lejeune-Kaba explained that UNHCR has moved nearly 10,000 refugees who were sleeping out in the open to settlements established close to the villages of Lolo, Mborguene, Borgop and Gado. There, they received food, clean drinking water, family shelters and basic relief items.
Meanwhile, UNHCR had stepped up assistance in border areas and deployed emergency staff, including nutrition specialists and site planners. She said UNHCR had funded health posts and mobile clinics in Kenzou as well as Ngaoui, Yamba and Gbatoua-Godoli in the neighbouring Adamawa region.
"Despite UNHCR's efforts, aid is not enough to cover all the refugees' needs," she said, appealing for more donor support to expand facilities in Garoua Boulai and Kenzou and to turn them into transit centres where all arrivals can be medically screened and treated without delay.