New York — Thousands of women and children fleeing the Central African Republic (CAR) for Cameroon arrive in a 'shocking state', malnourished and dangerously ill, the heads of two United Nations humanitarian agencies said today, warning that their funds are nearly exhausted and that hundreds of thousands of people could die unless urgent contributions are received.
"We must all act now or more children will needlessly suffer. We must intervene to save lives and prevent a worsening situation," said Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) Ertharin Cousin and UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.
Refugees from CAR have been arriving in Cameroon since early December. They are now arriving at a rate of up to 2,000 people per week, the majority of them women and children, according to a joint news release issued by WFP and the High Commissioner's office (UNHCR).
Based on what they told staff from the agencies, many of the refugees walked for weeks, even months, through the treacherous bush to reach Cameroon through more than 30 entry points along a 700-kilometre stretch of border. UNHCR has dubbed it "a journey of starvation and death."
At present there are almost 90,000 refugees in some 300 villages in the East and Adamawa regions. The logistics of reaching them are compounded by rains and poor roads, which mean that conditions in camps and host settlements are bound to deteriorate.
"The challenge is much more than just ensuring safe haven - it's about trying to save people's lives after they arrive," Mr. Guterres said.
According to WFP, between 20 and 30 per cent of the arriving refugees are acutely malnourished, as compared with a global emergency threshold of 15 per cent.
A WFP-chartered aircraft crammed with high energy biscuits and ready-to-eat nutritious foods arrived in Cameroon today from the UN humanitarian hub in Dubai. Another flight had arrived in Cameroon on Sunday.
The agency has launched an emergency operation to feed 100,000 people and is seeking $15.6 million over eight months. Its plan to feed people who fled CAR to its four surrounding countries has an average shortfall of 70 per cent or more.
Meanwhile, UNHCR has requested $22.6 million for its programmes, of which only $4.2 million have so far been received. In addition, the Regional Refugee Response Plan for CAR, which includes UNHCR, WFP and 13 partners in Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo, is only 9 per cent funded at present.
Fighting in CAR has taken on an increasingly sectarian nature following a 2012 rebel-led coup and has since become more brutal with reports of ongoing human rights violations and clashes that have left 2.2 million in need of humanitarian aid.