'We lost everything' — Sudanese refugees arrive in Chad as difficult times loom
When the fighters came to her Sudanese village, 50-year-old Aicha Madar fled with her daughter Fatima, joining thousands streaming across the border into eastern Chad.
“The armed groups burned everything,” says Aicha, sitting with a group of fellow refugees and cradling her year-old daughter in her lap.
“Here, we have nothing, as we lost everything there,” she says. “We just go to the bush to get bundles of wood to sell.”
Aicha counts among tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees who have escaped the recent uptick of violence in their homeland – numbers that could swell to 270,000 or more, the United Nations warns.
Most are heading to South Sudan and to Chad, countries already grappling with some of the world’s highest hunger levels, which risk climbing further as Sudan’s unrest halts vital cross-border trade and sends food prices soaring.
Those are not the only alarm bells sounding. In Chad, the refugee influx comes weeks before the onset of the lean season between harvests, expected to leave an estimated 1.9 million people severely food insecure.
Pounding rains arriving about the same time threaten to turn swathes of desert into rivers, imperiling deliveries of key food assistance to the refugees and other vulnerable groups.
“It’s a perfect storm,” says Pierre Honnorat, World Food Programme (WFP) Country Director and Representative in Chad. “The lean season coming in June. And the rainy season that will cut off all those regions.”
Meanwhile, a funding crunch may force WFP to halt its assistance to all refugees in Chad as early as next month, Honnorat adds. This includes more than 450,000 long-term refugees in the country – most of them Sudanese. Already this month, WFP has been forced to halve the numbers of refugees and internally displaced people it planned to assist in the country.
“There is absolutely no money for them,” Honnorat says.
Soaring prices, shrinking funds
The latest wave of Sudanese asylum seekers – many of them children and women like Aicha – have come from border areas, although many may soon come from further away. Many brought a small supply of food that quickly vanished.
While Chad closed its border with Sudan after fighting there broke out earlier this month, refugees like Aicha can still arrive through several entry points. They remain near Chad’s frontier with Sudan, sitting and sleeping under trees barely able to protect them from a searing heat and sun.
“We prefer to stay here for the moment and see how the situation develops,” says Ali Adam Ibrahim, who left his native Sudan after hearing news of clashes in the capital, Khartoum.
WFP is delivering food assistance to the newcomers – enough sorghum, pulses, oil and salt to feed about 20,000 people for a month. But with no new funds in sight – and the possibility of tens of thousands more Sudanese refugees arriving – the situation risks becoming dire.
Indeed, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that up to 100,000 Sudan refugees could arrive in Chad in the coming weeks, and another 170,000 in South Sudan.
Meanwhile, the border closures have dried up key food exports from Sudan to its neighbours.
That, along with the refugee influx, has driven up local food prices. Near Chad’s border with Sudan, for example, the price of a kilo of sorghum jumped 50 percent within a week, WFP’s Honnorat says.
“It’s not going to just affect the border,” he adds. “It’s going to affect eastern Chad overall. A lot of cargo like cereal and sugar was coming in from Sudan.”
Honnorat worries that if more refugees and the rains arrive, the already scarce food at local markets – along with funding for WFP’s food assistance – will dry up entirely in weeks to come.
“Today, it’s a real race,” he says. “We need to pre-position food immediately, because we know it’s going to be terrible. But we don’t know how many people are going to come.”
WFP urgently needs at least US$145.6 million to continue supporting newly arrived and existing refugees in Chad, along with host communities. Otherwise, their food and nutrition security - and their safety - will immediately deteriorate.