Health concerns for thousands of refugees from Central African Republic in makeshift camps

Publié: 5 avril 2013 15:52 CET

By Katherine Mueller, IFRC

They come as families, unaccompanied children, pregnant women and the elderly, all searching for security that, for the moment, they fear they cannot find in their own country.

They are settling on the banks of the Ubangui river in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a short boat ride from their homes in Central African Republic (CAR). Or they are moving in with host families, which are already stretched for resources. When asked how they are managing to support extra people when it is already a struggle to provide for their own, the response from host families is simply: “On est ensemble” – “We are together.”

When fighting between rebels and the military in CAR intensified earlier this year, the influx of people into DRC spiked, from 4,000 in January to nearly 22,000 in March. After the government of CAR was overthrown on 24 March, an estimated 5,000 people ran to DRC in the days that followed.

UNHCR has opened one refugee camp in Worobé, not far from the border with CAR, and plans to open a second one, further inland. The Democratic Republic of Congo Red Cross is encouraging refugees to move to these camps, however, few want to go. They prefer to remain near the river which offers an opportunity to live their traditional lifestyle. It is also close to their homeland. But settling in spontaneous encampments is raising a host of health concerns for both refugees and their hosts.

“Malaria, diarrhoea, typhoid fever, malnutrition, acute respiratory infections and intestinal parasites are all common in this region,” says Stephane Michaud, member of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) field assessment and coordination team (FACT). Seconded from the Canadian Red Cross, Michaud spent more than two weeks on the ground in Equateur province, gathering data on the specific needs of the refugees. “Most villages don’t have a health centre. Health posts that do exist are often far from where people live and they have limited quantities of medicine. The arrival of these refugees is going to put an added strain on a health system that is already under resourced.”

Along the banks of the river, where refugees are building makeshift housing, there is also no water or sanitation infrastructure. This too raises the risk of the spread of diseases such as cholera.

The IFRC has launched an emergency appeal and, working through the Democratic Republic of Congo Red Cross and its network of volunteers, activities will focus on the provision of life-sustaining items. This includes mobile health clinics visiting various sites along the river, and the distribution of supplies such as mosquito nets, shelter kits, soap and buckets.

“Getting material and human resources to the people is going to be extremely challenging,” says Colin Chaperon, FACT leader, from the American Red Cross. “There are pockets of people scattered along a 600 kilometre stretch of the river bank, in an extremely remote part of the country. Access is limited. Using barges or traditional canoes takes time. Flying in supplies will be more expensive, but that may be our only viable option at the moment.”