GENEVA, May 23 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Friday issued a fresh appeal for funds to help the growing number of refugees arriving in eastern Cameroon from the Central African Republic, many of them malnourished and ill after walking and hiding in the bush for weeks.
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva that the rate of deaths among refugee children has been particularly high in recent weeks. "Twenty nine children, the youngest a baby and the eldest nine years old, died between April 14 and May 18 - most of them at therapeutic feeding centres, where they had arrived already gravely ill. Dehydration, hypothermia and severe anaemia were the main causes of death," he said.
Refugees from the Central African Republic have been arriving in Cameroon since December 5 through some 30 border points on a long border. At present there are 85,000 refugees in some 300 villages, making it extremely challenging for humanitarian agencies to meet their needs. In the worst-affected area, around Gbiti, severe malnutrition rates among newly arriving refugee children are running at close to 40 per cent.
"We are relocating refugees away from the border to six sites we have set up, as well as to several villages. More than 25,000 refugees have so far been moved. This has become additionally pressing amid reports of infiltration of Anti-Balaka fighters into Cameroon," he said, adding that on May 14, gunfire from Central African Republic was heard near a spontaneous refugee site in Gbiti.
At present, more than 2,000 refugees are crossing into Cameroon weekly, down from the peak of more than 10,000 in the last week of March. Arrivals decreased in early April after Anti-Balaka militiamen, who have attacked refugees on the way, blocked the main roads leading to Cameroon. Newly arriving refugees tell UNHCR staff that many of their family members remain trapped in the bush across the border.
Edwards said UNHCR had established three new bases in eastern Cameroon to better help refugees arriving across the border, but the agency was unable to reach all 30 entry points. "Since March, we have had 35 staff in three teams in the area. Each team includes specialists in protection, community services, registration, health and nutrition, water and sanitation, site planning and shelter," the spokesman said.
"While the humanitarian efforts are saving lives, we are accelerating the deployment of more NGOs for the critical sectors of health and nutrition. Currently, NGO capacity is worryingly thin in the refugee hosting areas. Several agencies have reported difficulties in covering the vast array of needs," he noted.
UNHCR is working with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme and five medical aid agencies to reduce malnutrition rates and deaths. This includes the provision of therapeutic and supplementary feeding for the malnourished, general food distribution, vaccination campaigns, and the supply of clean water, sanitation and shelter.
"Further funding is needed to expand services and better address the situation," Edwards said, adding: "UNHCR renews its call for donors to urgently step up funding to humanitarian operations in Cameroon."
Of the US$22.6 million UNHCR is seeking to help this population, so far just US$4.2 million has been received. In addition, the Regional Refugee Response Plan for Central African Republic is only 12 per cent funded. This plan involves UNHCR and 14 partners in the four countries affected by Central African Republic refugee crisis - Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Republic of the Congo.