Ten years after fleeing genocide in the Sudanese region of Darfur, Abdulla Juma Abubakr has no intention of returning home.
After leaving the West Darfur town of El-Geneina in 2002, he first spent two years in a border camp inside Sudan, before moving on to Djabal, a refugee camp in eastern Chad’s Goz-Beida region.
“From what I saw when we left, the way people were killed, mosques burnt… I can’t imagine going back,” Abubakr, a refugee leader at the camp, told reporters. “I know that other people are going back but I can’t go back. I still have some family members in Darfur but I can’t be sure of my security if I return.”
Many of the camp’s 18,000 refugees, most of them from Darfur, are also reluctant to return home.
“The Darfur refugees have put many conditions towards return – security and recovery of property and land and other things,” said Aminata Gueye, the representative of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Chad.
“We were working on a tripartite mechanism with respect to possible repatriation, but as long as the situation is not good they will not return. We were hoping in 2013 to facilitate the returns of some refugees, mainly the Masaliet.” The Masaliet are a non-Arab ethnic group found in parts of Sudan and Chad.
“We always hope for return because this is our first durable solution. The second is resettlement, but it is always blocked by political considerations,” added Gueye.
Since 2009 and the thawing of relations between Chad and Sudan, the Darfur conflict has switched from western to eastern Darfur, allowing some pockets of stability to appear in West Darfur, Jérôme Tubiana, an independent researcher said. “Some returns of both IDPs [internally displaced persons] and refugees have happened in those pockets, but they are often temporary because the security is still very unstable.”
Darfur at present has an estimated 1.7 million IDPs registered in camps while Eastern Chad is hosting an estimated 264,000 Sudanese refugees.
Every week, some of the refugees go home and then return, Saudi Hassan, the head of the Goz Beida office of the national commission dealing with IDPs and refugees (CNARR) said. “They have real-time information; around 95 percent of them do not want to go back. They say that their land has been occupied by Arabs, they lacks infrastructure in the original homes compared to the refugee camps, there are still some IDP sites in Darfur, and they ask, ‘how can we then go back home?'”
Since 2010, Darfur has all but vanished from the international agenda, notes a July report, entitled Forgotten Darfur: Old Tactics and New Players, by Small Arms Survey. “While several parts of Darfur have become demonstrably more peaceful since 2009 – particularly as the geography of conflict has shifted eastwards away from West Darfur and the Sudan-Chad border – late 2010 and the first half of 2011 saw a significant offensive by the Sudan Armed Forces and militias.”
The offensives, says the report, have been backed by airstrikes and aerial bombardments, targeting the rebel groups and the Zaghawa civilian population across much of eastern Darfur.
Darfur first experienced major fighting between 2003 and 2005, with Arab abbala (camel-herding) militia attacking Africans accused of supporting an anti-government rebellion there, the report said. But “the ‘new’ war in eastern Darfur, which erupted in late 2010 and early 2011, has pitted government backed non-Arab groups against other non-Arabs; specifically, government-backed militias drawn from small, previously marginalized non-Arab groups – including the Bergid, Berti, and Tunjur – deployed against Zaghawa rebel groups and communities.”
The refugees have put many conditions towards return key among them security
Back in eastern Chad’s Djabal camp, the Darfur refugees are feeling increasingly forgotten, Abubakr said. “When we came [into the camp] in the first and second years, there was a lot of attention on us. Now we do not receive visitors; it seems like no one cares. Before, organizations came and started schools then…we were told the basic schools were ours to manage, now there is no pre-school in the camp.
“When we came, all refugees were vulnerable, now to get non-food support, they chose the most vulnerable as if the rest of us have jobs,” he said.
Sudanese refugee children face other risks, as well. “Sudanese refugee children are not receiving birth certificates while the ones from CAR [the Central African Republic] do,” UNHCR’s Gueye said. “These children did not choose to be born in the country.” A lack of birth certificates means that the children may not be able to sit for exams – when they go back home, they may also not be recognized there, she explained.
The Sudanese refugee children are being issued birth declarations, which are not recognized documents, but advocacy efforts are underway for them to get birth certificates, said CNARR.
Access to conventional justice for the refugees due to cultural issues is also a problem, according to UNHCR. For example, among the refugees there is the payment of ‘dadia’, a fine imposed when violence leads to death; if someone cannot pay, then they are killed together with their family. Efforts at introducing mobile courts have been complicated by the harsh living conditions in the refugee areas, with civil servants and lawyers reluctant to work there. Threats against staff have also left many cases pending.
Affected by the food crisis
The ongoing Sahel food crisis has not spared the refugee population either. Refugees in parts of eastern Chad rely mainly on humanitarian aid, a full ration of 2,100 Kcals from the UN World Food Programme through UNHCR, without farming opportunities, while those in the south have access to land for cultivation and receive a half ration.
“This has reflected in their current nutrition status with GAM [global acute malnutrition] rates higher in the east than in the [southern] camps, with the exception of Dosseye camp,” said Prosper Kabi Dibidibi, UNHCR Chad’s senior public health officer.
Meanwhile, the refugees in eastern Chad, as elsewhere, are seen as better-off than host communities in the remote regions where the camps are located. “If you compare the refugees to the hosts and the IDPs, the refugees are doing better than the rest of the group, they are not really the most affected by the food insecurity in the region,” said CNARR’s Hassan.
But this year, UNHCR resources for Chad have been drastically reduced and could reduce further in 2013, Gueye said. “When the plan to respond [to the Sahel crisis] was put up, they did not include the refugees because they said UNHCR is there. There is a need for a harmonized response to the crisis; the refugees should not be left out of any response.”