Chad's refugee camps, already straining at the seams, should steel themselves for the arrival of at least another 100,000 people fleeing Darfur within the next seven months, UN officials said
Chad has already provided a safe haven for almost 200,000 civilians who have escaped the campaign of slaughter, pillaging and rape being waged by the pro-government Janjawid militia in Sudan's Darfur province.
But the end is not yet in sight.
"We have the feeling that another 100,000 people are about to flee Darfur and find refuge in Chad," Ruud Lubbers, the head of the refugee agency UNHCR told Chadian radio at the weekend as he toured the impoverished country.
The UN's co-ordinator for Chad, Kingsley Amaning, agreed with the prognosis. But he also stressed that this was the best-case scenario.
"100,000 is the figure we think we will reach before the next rainy season, that is to say, May. And that’s on the optimistic side, it could be as many as 150,000," he told IRIN in an interview in his office in the Chadian capital N'djamena.
"Our worry is that... because the terrain is inhospitable and the difficulties great, our resources will be stretched," he added.
Even before a new wave of refugees, aid workers at the 10 Chadian camps along the eastern border with Darfur are already struggling to cope with chronic shortages of water and shelter materials and a precarious supply of food.
Several admit in private that the situation is teetering on the brink.
"We're continually fire-fighting, and more fires keep flaring up," one humanitarian worker confided.
A visit to Bredjing, the largest and most overcrowded camp, rams home the scale of the problem.
There are about 44,000 refugees in the camp, more than double its planned capacity.
|Refugees eke out the days in crude shelters in Bredjing camp|
Around 14,000 of them are still without proper tents. They have been forced to craft crude shelters out of branches, sacks, bits of cardboard and if they are lucky, plastic sheeting, to protect themselves from the burning desert sun.
Aid workers openly admit there is not enough water and not enough latrines to maintain basic levels of sanitation.
UNHCR official Bertrand Bazel said the refugees at Bredjing should be getting 15 litres of water every day, but are in fact receiving just 10. And CARE, the charity managing the camp, estimates at least 70 people are having to share a latrine, when it should be 20 at most.
As far as feeding the refugees goes, the World Food Programme says it has guaranteed food for October, but more funds are needed to keep the supplies coming. The WFP has received only 70 percent of the $42 million it has called on international donors to provide.
If tens of thousands more refugees stream across the frontier from Darfur as the fighting there continues, it will be hard put to keep all mouths adequately fed.
Waiting and watching
There are already thousands of Darfuris waiting at the border just inside Chad for a chance to move to the camps which offer better protection.
A little over 50 km from Bredjing, about 5,000 people are at the frontier near the town of Adre, Ali Abderahmane a UNHCR officer told IRIN.
The refugees are protected from Sudanese militia on the other side of the border by a flowing wadi. But with the rainy season drawing to a close, the waters will fall and that will leave the refugees exposed and wanting to push further into Chad for safety.
"Now we're getting people actually asking us themselves to go to the camps," explained Abderahmane, who is trying to work out when and where to move them.
And on top of this, there are the 1.45 million people, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reckons are displaced inside Darfur - a poor and sparsely expanse of semi-desert the size of France.
A deterioration in the already shaky ceasefire between Khartoum and the rebels, a pick-up in the number Janjawid attacks and scarce supplies of food could provoke them into making a dash for Chad, especially now the roads are becoming more passable.
"A new influx of refugees will depend a lot on the evolution of events inside Darfur," Philippe Guyon Le Bouffy, the head of the WFP's operations in Chad, told IRIN.
"If the Sudanese government doesn't take action then we risk having a new wave. There is enormous political pressure at the moment but we're not seeing very much movement," he said.
Just over a week ago, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution threatening to "consider taking additional measures, including sanctions, to affect Sudan's oil sector and the government or its individual members" unless there were tangible efforts to protect civilians in Darfur against militia attacks.
And attempts at forging a lasting political solution to the crisis have barely made it out of the starting blocks. Earlier this month peace talks between the Sudanese government and the two rebel groups in Abuja, Nigeria, collapsed after nearly four weeks without agreement on any of the key issues.
Le Bouffy predicted that the limited penetration of aid agencies within Darfur would also determine whether more people choose to escape to Chad. At the moment the WFP is feeding just 600,000 people in Darfur -- less than half the number of internally displaced people.
"There is still a whole population that's not being reached and that's a population which could potentially move. If we can extend our operations... then they will have less reason to come to Chad," Le Bouffy said.