CIVICUS speaks with Monim Haroon, Emergency Communications Manager at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), about the situation of Sudanese migrants in Chad’s refugee camps and civil society’s work to support them.
Formally established in 1902, HIAS is the world’s oldest refugee agency. Originally set up by Jewish people to assist fellow Jews, it has evolved into a global humanitarian and advocacy group that helps hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced people in more than 20 countries around the world. Monim, himself a Darfur refugee, is currently deployed in Eastern Chad.
What’s the situation in Chad’s refugee camps?
There are now more than 580,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Chad. Refugees in Eastern Chad hail predominantly from the Darfur region of Sudan, and specifically from Darfur areas that have been marked by intense violence following the outbreak of conflict between the Sudan Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces in April 2023, resulting in a high number of displaced people. Approximately 87 per cent of these refugees are women and children, and they have been extremely traumatised by the violence experienced in Sudan, which underscores the need for psychosocial support.
The stories we hear from refugees are harrowing and heartbreaking, encapsulating the violence and adversity they have endured. They tell us that men are killed, arrested or prevented from leaving Darfur with their families. A 20-year-old refugee told us that because her father and older brother were both killed on their way to Chad, the family was ‘left without a protector and breadwinner’. A woman in her late 30s told us that when they were on their way to Chad, militia men stopped her husband and her nine-year-old son and told her to go on; a few seconds later she heard gunshots, turned around and saw them lying on the ground. These are just a couple among the many tragic stories we encounter daily.
In addition to mental health support, the needs of refugees span from necessities like food and clean water to medical care and housing. Camps have insufficient access to clean water, food and sanitation. Refugees consistently tell HIAS that they barely eat two meals a day and that they drink and wash their clothes with rainwater. Lack of electricity makes communication with their families back in Sudan difficult and has led women, in particular, to feel unsafe while moving around the camps after dark.
Lack of adequate shelter is of particular concern. Around 150,000 refugees are currently living in overcrowded camps where living conditions are incredibly harsh. Families of up to 12 members must fit into 3-by-3.5-metre makeshifts that they must kneel to enter and that provide no privacy and little protection from the rain and sun. They sleep directly on the ground, with no beds or mattresses.
These conditions make the refugee community incredibly vulnerable to diseases and elevate the risk of gender-based violence. It is urgent to address these needs in a comprehensive manner, which requires immediate attention and support from the international community.
How are Sudanese refugees received by the local population?
The local population has been quite welcoming. People have provided land to establish refugee camps and transit sites and have shared scarce resources – water, firewood and food – with the refugees. In some communities, refugees have outnumbered the population of the host community by a factor of ten, putting a lot of pressure on resources.
On some occasions farmland has been destroyed to create space to shelter refugees, and the Chadian government has negotiated with communities to ensure access to land and peaceful coexistence. Inevitably, however, some tensions have been reported. Local populations are pleading with the humanitarian community to also provide aid to them, as they have welcomed refugees into their communities and shared their very limited resources with them.
How do you work to support refugees?
In Chad, we have a wide range of programmes. These include distributing life-saving services like food and non-food items, running child protection awareness campaigns, identifying at-risk children, mitigating gender-based violence, providing mental health support and monitoring relocations.
We also promote peaceful coexistence among local communities and refugees. Our work revolves around championing refugees’ rights and creating an environment of hospitality, security and opportunity to reconstruct their lives.
To date, our efforts have positively impacted on over 152,000 refugees in just under four months. However, significant needs persist and increased funding is needed to fulfil them.
Additionally, the conditions in which our staff work are extraordinarily challenging, characterised by inadequate infrastructure and exacerbated by the rainy season, which makes movement and access incredibly difficult for refugees and aid workers alike. Navigating between refugee camps is a formidable task due to the rough terrain, uneven roads and rainwater-filled holes. These conditions only underscore the urgency and significance of our efforts.
But remarkably, we have not encountered backlash; rather, our work has garnered robust support from all quarters. The Chadian government, local groups and society at large have all joined efforts to aid and assist refugees.
How can the international community help?
Most refugees in the world are hosted in global south countries that share a border with the country people are fleeing from. Chad is no exception.
Chad is one of the poorest countries in the world, but it has kept its borders open to refugees. It needs greater support from the international community to meet the needs of not just the new arriving refugees, but also the ones it has been hosting for over 20 years, not to mention its own population.
As for HIAS, increased funding would help fill the gaps in terms of resources and services, enabling us and our partners to provide comprehensive assistance to refugees.
In addition, raising awareness of the need for an end to the conflict in Sudan can help provide a holistic solution for refugees and local communities.
I believe that if each of us contributes, raising our voices and taking action, more lives can be saved.
Civic space in Chad is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.