Sudanese Refugees: A Botched Hand-off to Development?

From atop a rocky hill in eastern Chad, Ali looked out at Farchana camp, home to almost 26,000 of his fellow refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan. In his field of vision, Ali could see a maze of mud-brick shelters, women chopping firewood, and roving bands of giggling children. But to Ali, all these things don’t simply amount to a refugee camp: they are a symbol of defiance.

“This camp is the evidence of who we are,” Ali told me – the living evidence of a crime that began 12 years ago, when full-scale war in Darfur first broke out, and one that continues to this day.

But to donor governments and aid agencies, camps like Farchana represent something else: an old way of assisting refugees here that can no longer be sustained. Fatigued after more than a decade tied to the camps, and looking for ways to cut costs, they want more of Chad’s 360,000 Sudanese refugees to become self-reliant, finding work and housing in local Chadian communities.

A boy and his donkey carry supplies, including cooking oil, on food distribution day in Am’Nabak camp.

A boy and his donkey carry supplies, including cooking oil, on food distribution day in Am’Nabak camp.

This may sound like a common-sense, sustainable shift. Indeed, Refugees International has often found that refugees are better off in communities than in camps, enjoying more freedoms, more opportunities, and a chance to care for themselves. But eastern Chad is one of the least developed parts of one of the world’s least developed countries. (Chad ranks 184th out of 187 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index.) In most of the areas where Sudanese refugees live, the climate is harsh, crop yields are meager, and government services like education and healthcare are largely non-existent.

If you speak to refugees and locals in eastern Chad, the challenges of moving beyond the camps quickly become obvious. “The soil here isn’t good,” Mustafa, a refugee from Touloum camp, told me. “If there was water here, we could do a lot of things for ourselves, but it’s too dry.”

The locals say, ‘You’re refugees! Why are you here?’ It’s not safe for women to go out of the camps because they are raped, and then they are ashamed and do not report it.
— Aishe, Sudanese refugee

Aishe, from Treguine camp, explained that because of fierce competition for natural resources, just trying to farm or collect wood outside the camp puts her at risk. “The locals say, ‘You’re refugees! Why are you here?’ It’s not safe for women to go out of the camps because they are raped, and then they are ashamed and do not report it.”

According to Nasruddin, many young refugee men are leaving the area because the situation is so bleak. They give themselves over to human traffickers, crossing first into Libya, and then boarding boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Nasruddin’s own brother attempted the journey, perishing when his boat sank on the way to Europe. “We have already lost too many young people that way.”

Life is tough for the Chadian locals, too. Hamid’s family used to farm the land where Treguine camp, with 20,000 refugees, now stands. His children go to school not in a schoolhouse, but under a tree. They drink water from a nearby river, which leaves them ridden with parasites. Malnutrition rates in most villages like his are even higher than in the refugee camps. “We need help like the refugees,” he told me as his family looked on. “We’re the same people, and we are suffering together.”

Listening to the refugees and locals in this forgotten region, it’s clear what they need most. Both groups will need long-term assistance from development agencies and the Chadian government. They will need help to manage scarce water resources, improve farming techniques, and care for livestock. They will need schools with teachers and clinics with healthcare workers. And they will need institutions that encourage them to cooperate, share resources, and resolve their disputes peacefully.

Unfortunately, these activities are not happening at any significant scale. Development donors and agencies have all but abandoned eastern Chad, while the humanitarians that remain have neither the expertise nor the funding for the tasks at hand. It’s a recipe for missed opportunities, poor outcomes, and even conflict – and that’s why Refugees International will be working hard to change it.