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Influx of refugees creates silent emergency in eastern Cameroon

© UNICEF video
A young child leans against a wall in Cameroon, where resources are currently strained with the integration of 60,000 refugees from the Central African Republic.

In the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – a landmark international agreement on the basic human rights of all children – UNICEF is featuring a series of stories about progress made and challenges that remain. Here is one of those stories.

By Eva Gilliam

DHAHONG, Cameroon, 6 July 2009 – On the surface, the refugee situation in eastern Cameroon looks like a success, but it is also one of immense chaos. Since 2002, over 60,000 refugees from the neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR) have been integrated into host communities here.

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There are no refugee camps, and there is peaceful co-existence between Cameroonians and Central Africans, who are fleeing kidnappings and killings by armed groups and bandits in CAR.

Fragile communities

The refugees – primarily from the Mbororo ethnic group, which spans the region – are nomadic pastoralists and have a long history of shepherding their cattle across the Cameroon-CAR border.

Their familiarity with the terrain and the local villages has made for relatively easy integration, as most of the refugees began living alongside Cameroonians from the start. The generous hosts have shared all the necessary resources, including land, food, water and schools for refugee children.

© UNICEF video
School attendance nearly doubled in eastern Cameroon in 2008, filling already crowded classrooms with children from refugee families – but most refugee children still are not in school.

“There has been an overwhelming hospitality by the Cameroonian Government towards these refugees,” said UNICEF Representative in Cameroon Ora Musu Clemens. “The borders remain open, and the CAR people are welcome to come and take refuge here. But these communities are very fragile already.”

Resources strained

Five years since the influx began, the integration of refugees and host communities still holds. However, resources are becoming increasingly strained.

“It has reached an urgent level, but no one knows,” said Ms. Clemens. “There has been very little attention to the situation, and that is why we are calling this a ‘silent emergency.’”

Traditionally dependent on raising cattle for survival, the Mbororo now find themselves settled in agricultural communities. Many have lost most or all of their herds. They struggle to nourish their families on monthly food distributions from the UN refugee agency.

Child malnutrition increasing

Absatu, a mother and CAR refugee, has been staying at the therapeutic nutrition centre in Djahong, approximately 100 km from the CAR border. Her oldest son is five years old but looks much younger. Absatu brought him to the centre because he became so malnourished, he could no longer walk.

“My husband is gone ... most of the month trying to sell the few cows we have left,” she said. “When he comes back, he will have enough money for maybe a week or two. Then he leaves again, and I have to fend for the family. There just isn’t any food.”

Absatu is not alone. The Mbororo are at a loss for income with which to buy food and other daily necessities. And because the population has grown while the amount of agricultural production has largely stayed the same, the region has seen severe child malnutrition among both refugee children (at nearly 20 per cent) and, increasingly, children from host communities.

“We’re seeing more Cameroonians now,” said Dr. Dzudjo Pierre, who runs a nutritional screening and treatment programme in Garoua Boulai. “When we began, the programme was directed towards Central African refugees, but as we went on, we understood that Cameroonians, too, had the same problem.”

© UNICEF video
Traditionally dependent on raising cattle for survival, nomadic Mbororo refugees from CAR now find themselves settled in agricultural communities in Cameroon.

Limited school facilities

The move away from traditional patterns has also meant adjusting to village life for refugee families – including schooling for the Mbororo children. School attendance nearly doubled in eastern Cameroon in 2008, filling already crowded classrooms with children from refugee families – but about two-thirds of the 28,000 refugee children still are not in school.

“They were about 150 [students] before,” explained the Director of the Manju Primary School in East Cameroon, Gilbert Nouab. “Now there are more than 300.” Mr. Nouab said many more children who would like to attend school, but there is no infrastructure to support them: “We simply don’t have the buildings.”

The International Federation of the Red Cross is offering to help pay the school fees of children whose families are unable to do so, but if all the children were to come school, there would be no place for them. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF have contributed to infrastructure where possible, yet resources remain insufficient.

International support needed

Additional challenges facing refugee children in Cameroon include a lack of birth registration as well as an increase in child sexual exploitation, early marriage and pregnancy.

Meanwhile, the urgent humanitarian needs in this economically deprived region have gone largely unnoticed by the international community. UNICEF and its partners –  including UNHCR, the International Medical Corps and the Red Cross – are doing the most they can with the few resources available to them.

But unless the Cameroonian Government and host communities receive the support they need to develop long-term solutions, this silent emergency will continue to grow.




25 June 2009:
UNICEF’s Eva Gilliam reports on the ‘silent emergency’ facing refugees from the Central African Republic and their host communities in Cameroon.
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1 July 2009:
UNICEF Representative in Cameroon Ora Musu Clemens explains the ‘silent emergency’ for refugees in the eastern part of the country.
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