Insecurity hampers relief, prevents return of refugees

Most fled the fighting with little more than the clothes on their backs. Now, insecurity and poor access are hampering efforts to address the most basic needs of more than 114,000 refugees in northern Republic of Congo.

“Currently there’s a heavy militia and insurgent presence on the Ubangui river, which is complicating aid worker movements, because you don’t know who to trust,” Daniel Roger Tam, of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) told IRIN in Impfondo, 900km north of Brazzaville and capital of Likouala department, among the poorest and least-developed regions in the country.

“On the river, insurgents and soldiers [from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC] are spreading fear. For weeks, our boats have been stuck in [the riverside town of] Bétou because of the insecurity,” said Jonathan Balou, another UNCHR official.

According to a local government official in Impfondo: “From time to time, DRC soldiers come to our side of the river to, as they put it, pursue the insurgents. You can see them on the river and some fishermen have stopped fishing as a result.”

Bétou sub-prefect Col Jean-Dominique Engamba told IRIN the situation was no better on the other side of the river. “Some people who sought refuge with us, having thought things had calmed down, tried to leave again either to retrieve some of their belongings or to see if their fields have been ruined. But they were simply sent back by soldiers controlling Dongo [the epicentre of the crisis in DRC’s Equateur Province]. The soldiers prefer the villages empty so they can get down to plundering them,” he said.

The Congo government has deployed additional troops along the river to protect the refugees and humanitarian workers from armed groups active in DRC. More than 114,000 people, mostly women and children, have fled Equateur province in DRC since October 2009 because of inter-communal clashes.

However, despite this deployment, insecurity on parts of the river has left some refugee sites beyond the reach of humanitarian assistance.

Photo: Laudes Martial Mbon/IRIN
Health services in Congo’s Likouala province cannot even meet the needs of the local population let alone those of the refugees

The influx has almost doubled the overall population of Likouala, where social services such as medical centres, schools and markets, barely even meet the needs of the host population.

“We don’t have sufficient resources to conduct the relief operation and complete it on schedule,” said Tam.

The refugees are now located at around 100 sites dotted along a 500km stretch of the Ubangui, which marks the border between the two Congos.

“Their needs range across the whole spectrum of basic services, such as protection, food, health, non-food items, clean water and sanitation, livelihood support and education,” according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and UNHCR, which have jointly appealed for US$60m to help the refugees.

“These needs persist due to the fact that the social service structures in the zones where refugees settled have either been overwhelmed by the inflow of refugees, or simply never existed to begin with,” states the appeal document. “A robust response is needed to prevent a full-blown crisis.”

Aid workers face various logistical constraints. Without roads, the Ubangui is the main access route to the refugees, but many boats are in disrepair and fuel is scarce and costly. In addition, the river’s waters are so low now that only small craft can navigate it. While one WFP barge laden with relief supplies made it from Brazzaville to the Likouala town of Ndjoundou, another was grounded downstream. In an effort to overcome these logistical setbacks, WFP has begun to airlift supplies to the north.

Photo: UNHCR/F. Noy
Many refugees can only be accessed by river but low water levels and scarce fuel complicate even this method of delivering aid

Dire conditions

Despite a mass vaccination campaign in Likouala and significant deliveries of food and non-food items - such as plastic sheeting for shelter, sleeping mats, blankets, kitchen sets, jerry cans, buckets and mosquito nets - conditions for most of the refugees are dire.

“Once, WFP brought us some peas, a little salt and rice. Our food stocks have been depleted for a long time now. Cassava leaves have become our daily meal,” Jonas Babomba Mango, a refugee supervisor in the Likouala town of Bétou, told IRIN.

Most of the refugees fled before harvest time so food stocks in Congo are depleted. Prices of staples in urban markets doubled between September and November 2009. Previously vibrant food trade on the river has been suspended. Lack of nets and the river’s low water level make it hard to fish.

Cases of malnutrition have been recorded among children. “Although they have diminished, these malnutrition cases persist,” said Philippe Pebila, a nurse working with the NGO Médecins d'Afrique in Gnamoba, upstream from Bétou.

“We have a big problem with sexually transmitted infections, which account for 10-30 percent of external consultations,” said Hervé le Guillouzic, a UNHCR health official.

Aid workers are also worried about access to clean water. “Refugees use the river for drinking, washing, and defecating. The swelling of the population has considerably increased the risk of water contamination,” noted the OCHA/UNCHR appeal, which pointed out that about two-thirds of refugee sites lacked wells.