* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
BANGUI, Central African Republic, March 26 (UNHCR) ¬- More than 20 per cent of the population of the Central African Republic has been uprooted by violence or persecution, with 615,700 internally displaced people (IDP) and more than 312,000 refugees in neighbouring countries at the beginning of March. Many of those forcibly displaced by the violence live in precarious sites, such as the settlement that has mushroomed at M'Poko, next to Bangui's international airport. Some 52,000 IDPs are currently living there, down from a peak of 100,000 after the latest violence erupted in December. The people were living in dire conditions, with aid agencies such as UNHCR unable to gain access to them and distribute aid for several weeks due to the insecurity. Now a new threat looms - the rainy season, due in April. It could bring flooding and disease. But UNHCR and its partners have plans in hand to tackle the threat and help people return home. Jose Samaniego, UNHCR camp coordination and camp management coordinator, told Public Information Officer Dalia Al Achi more. Excerpts from the interview:
How will the rains affect the internally displaced and efforts to help them?
The rainy season will particularly affect communities living in flood-prone areas of Bangui and those in rural areas whose houses have been destroyed, leaving them without a roof over their heads. In February, a team of experts from REACH [an initiative based in Geneva and set up to prepare reports for aid actors in the field] was sent to Central African Republic to assess the likelihood of flooding in current displacement sites and to propose remedial measures to be implemented before the rainy season. They predicted that sanitary conditions will deteriorate in most sites, increasing the risk of epidemics. Diseases will mainly affect the most vulnerable groups, such as children, elderly people and others with special needs. The rains will also affect the population at large, making roads impassable due to mudslides and flooding, and cutting off some areas from humanitarian assistance and basic services.
One of the most threatened locations is M'Poko, site of the international airport for Bangui. It is a swampy area with very poor soil condition. This site should be closed as soon as possible, for several reasons: it is prone to flooding and water stagnation because of poor drainage, which makes the risk of a cholera outbreak high. The location of the largest IDP site in Bangui alongside the runway also raises security concerns for the national authorities, humanitarian actors and the IDPs themselves.
What is being done to protect the displaced during the rainy season?
Humanitarian actors [including UNHCR] have drafted action and contingency plans for the rainy season and the main focus is to create conditions conducive for the return of IDPs to their neighbourhoods. This plan will be implemented in close coordination with national and local authorities. Looking at current trends and surveys, most displaced people in Bangui are expected to return home in the next few weeks or months.
However, some people might be unable to return before the onset of the rainy season. For them, measures should be taken to provide dignified and safe conditions in existing sites or alternative locations. For the small and medium-sized displacement sites, managed by local associations with the support of humanitarian agencies, the plan is to improve the drainage systems and the condition of shelters. In M'Poko, humanitarian agencies and national authorities have identified alternative temporary sites to host people unable to return to their neighbourhoods. We are particularly concerned about people with special needs such as single women head of households, those living with disability, victims of violence, and unaccompanied or separated children. This contingency measure should only be implemented a few weeks before the rainy season.
What conditions need to be in place for people to return home?
Surveys conducted by our partners IOM [International Organization for Migration] and [French NGO] Premiere Urgence-Aide Medicale Internationale in Bangui show that the vast majority of IDPs would like to return if security conditions improve. However, there are other reasons that prevent people from returning. The lack of access to basic services - such as health and education - and to income-generation opportunities make return a bigger challenge for displaced people who lost their belongings, had their houses looted or destroyed.
In the last few months, health and education services have been provided free of charge at displacement sites. It is therefore essential to shift the assistance programmes from the IDP sites to the areas of origin so that people have access to basic services closer to their homes. Agencies are also working on creating livelihood opportunities in these areas of origin, but this is an even bigger challenge since the CAR economy has been paralyzed for so long.
Many people are afraid to go back. It is very important to share information about the security situation in each neighbourhood of origin so that these people understand the dynamics of each area and gradually reconnect with their community and become well informed about the situation. Representatives of the displaced communities have held several meetings with the national authorities as well as with international security forces. People were very eager to receive feedback on their concerns, easing their anxiety and fear. We are working on facilitating dialogue between the communities, national authorities, civil society, humanitarian actors and international security forces, in order to restore the confidence of people in their state authorities. These confidence-building activities should together support the return process.
Is it safe for displaced communities to go back home?
The situation in Bangui is extremely volatile, but we see progress in many neighbourhoods that have recovered some semblance of normalcy. For the vast majority of displaced people, mainly the Christian community, there is a gradual process of return taking place, with the support of national and international actors. The same dynamic is observed in some prefectures of the north-west, such as Bossangoa. Displaced people are gradually returning to their villages to tend their fields before the rains begin.
However, this improvement has come too late for many people, mainly for the Muslim minority who lived in mixed neighbourhoods of the city as well as in many rural communities in the north-west and south-west of the Central African Republic. Most of them have fled the country to escape extremely violent reprisals against their community. For them, return is currently not an option. Those remaining, face imminent risk of attack by armed groups. Some 20,000 Muslims are today trapped and threatened and need increased protection to stay alive . . . The Central African Republic authorities and international community are aware of the extreme gravity of the situation, but face enormous difficulties in ensuring the protection of this population in Bangui, and in many other prefectures of the country.