C Africa refugees overwhelm Cameroon

2014-06-05 05:00
Sacks of food aid from the World Food Programme donated by the United Kingdom and the United States. (Phil Moore, AFP)

Sacks of food aid from the World Food Programme donated by the United Kingdom and the United States. (Phil Moore, AFP)

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Rome - The United Nations food aid and refugee agencies on Wednesday appealed for funds to cope with a growing humanitarian crisis in Cameroon caused by thousands of refugees fleeing the Central African Republic.

The World Food Programme and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said up to 2 000 people a week were crossing into neighbouring Cameroon, many of them wounded in sectarian clashes and suffering from malnutrition after weeks hiding in the bush.

"People are arriving in absolutely tragic circumstances and in a context in which support for humanitarian organisations is reduced, because this is a forgotten crisis," UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres told AFP.

"The appeals we have launched have been financed to a level of around 10%," said Guterres, who also warned that there was "a real risk of regional spillover" from a conflict that has taken increasingly ethno-religious tones.

Deeply impoverished Central Africa has been gripped by crisis since mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in a March 2013 coup, but then were replaced with an interim government in January.

Splinter groups of Seleka rebels, however, embarked on a campaign of killing, raping and looting, prompting members of the Christian majority to form vigilante groups.

For more than a year, fighters for the two sides have carried out tit-for-tat killings that has left thousands dead and close to a million displaced - most of them Muslims.

WFP's executive director Ertharin Cousin said that the refugee crisis had brought to a record level of four the number of top-level humanitarian emergencies that her agency was trying to deal with at the same time: Syria, South Sudan, Central Africa and Cameroon.

"Our inability to provide food assistance where people need it because of lack of resources, a lack of access, is forcing more people to move into the neighbouring countries," Cousin said, after a briefing for donors.

Scaling up operations

Since December, an estimated 90 000 refugees have crossed into Cameroon along a 700km stretch of border.

WFP has provided rations to 44 700 refugees since May and is scaling up operations, with the second of two chartered planes with supplies reaching Cameroon on Sunday.

In Central Africa "we're moving towards half the population that's in need of assistance and that's only going to get worse if we don't reach the people in need," Cousin said.

Denise Brown, WFP's emergency co-ordinator for CAR and Cameroon, said the agency was "extremely concerned", particularly about malnutrition rates among child refugees.

"The acute malnutrition rates are estimated to be 11% and anything over two percent is an emergency," Brown said. "About one third of them are already in a state of what is basically starvation."

She said WFP had received $83m in donations out of an overall target of $160m announced in December but warned the required amount was going to increase "very quickly" because of the deteriorating refugee situation.

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