Darfur Refugees in Eastern Chad: The Most Invisible Casualties of the Darfur Genocide

African/non-Arab refugees from violence in Darfur began to flee to eastern Chad well before the date conventionally used to mark the outbreak of large-scale violence in Darfur itself, February 2003—fourteen and a half years ago. The Massalit in particular were victims of brutal attacks by Khartoum-sanctioned militias in the 1990s, and they have suffered particularly severe and concentrated human destruction and displacement. This is true even within the ghastly context of Khartoum’s genocidal counter-insurgency in Darfur, beginning in earnest following the successful rebel attack on the El Fasher airbase in April 2003.

Hundreds of thousands of African/non-Arab Darfuris remain trapped as refugees in twelve main camps in eastern Chad, unable to return because of the massive insecurity that continues to prevail in most of Darfur—insecurity that will only increase with the severe reductions in the UN/African Union “hybrid” Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). On June 30, 2017 the UN Security Council renewed the mandate for UNAMID, but—at Khartoum’s behest—reduced the military presence in Darfur by 44 percent and the police presence by more than 30 percent.

Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that Sudan Tribune today reports the following:

• Sudanese refugees say they want to settle in Chad | August 7, 2017 (KHARTOUM) | http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article63192

Over 500 Sudanese from West Darfur state who have recently moved into eastern Chad told the UN refugee agency they have no intention to return to their homeland. In an update on the refugee situation in Chad released on 7 August, the UNCHR Chad said some 112 families, 512 people have arrived the village of Katarfa in eastern Chad on Saturday 29th July 2017. The Sudanese refugees, “mainly women and children are from the Massalit ethnic group, told the UN aid workers they fled their village, Terbebe or Terbiba near the border with Chad, following a surge of violence after a clash between a Massalit farmer and a cattle herder.

In a report about the refugees in Chad released on 31 July, the UNHCR says there are 319,512 Sudanese refugees generally residing in 12 camps in the eastern part of the country since 2003.

Perhaps of note, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) “Factsheet” of May 2017 (https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/56878/) gives a figure of 317,219 Darfuri refugees—more than 2,000 fewer than the July 31, 2017 report cited by Sudan Tribune. And given the substance of the Sudan Tribune report, an increase in the number of Darfuri refugees is a distinct possibility.

Indeed, so low a priority have Darfuri refugees been in eastern Chad, that it seems important to note first of all how rare reporting is of any kind. And what reporting there is seems not to figure in the accounts rendered by UNHCR, which often ignore the intense resistance of these refugees to any thought of returning voluntarily to Darfur:

Refugees in eastern Chad refuse to return to Darfur | Radio Dabanga | November 1, 2015 | EASTERN CHAD | https://www.dabangasudan.org/en/all-news/article/refugees-in-eastern-chad-refuse-to-return-to-darfur

The Darfuri refugees in eastern Chad categorically refuse to join the voluntary repatriation programme in the current insecure climate. The refugees set the restoration of the rule of law, disarmament of the militias, prosecution of the perpetrators of war crimes, and compensation, as conditions for their voluntary return. A delegation of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and a representative of the Chadian government, held a meeting with refugee leaders in the Djabal camp on Tuesday concerning the voluntary repatriation programme, as agreed between the UNHCR and the Sudanese and Chadian authorities in September. “They told us that a Sudanese delegation will visit the camps in November to prepare for the return of the refugees,” El Zein Mohamed Ahmed, Radio Dabanga correspondent in eastern Chad reported.

“The refugee elders and sheikhs asserted their categorical rejection of the voluntary repatriation programme while the situation in most parts of Darfur is still extremely unsafe and insecure,” he said. “They told them the refugees will not welcome any delegation from the Khartoum regime, which is the main cause of their suffering.”

A similar account could be found in a report from the independent UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) several years earlier:

Darfur’s Forgotten Refugees | IRIN | GOZ BEIDA, 10 August 2012

Ten years after fleeing violence in the Sudanese region of Darfur, Abdulla Juma Abubakr has no intention of returning home. After leaving the West Darfur town of El-Geneina in 2002, he first spent two years in a border camp inside Sudan, before moving on to Djabal, a refugee camp in eastern Chad’s Goz-Beida region. “From what I saw when we left, the way people were killed, mosques burnt… I can’t imagine going back,” Abubakr, a refugee leader at the camp, told IRIN. “I know that other people are going back but I can’t go back. I still have some family members in Darfur but I can’t be sure of my security if I return.”

Many of the camp’s 18,000 refugees, most of them from Darfur, are also reluctant to return home. “The Darfur refugees have put many conditions towards return – security and recovery of property and land and other things,” Aminata Gueye, the representative of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Chad, told IRIN.

“We were working on a tripartite mechanism with respect to possible repatriation, but as long as the situation is not good they will not return. We were hoping in 2013 to facilitate the returns of some refugees, mainly the Masaliet.” The Masaliet are a non-Arab ethnic group found in parts of Sudan and Chad.

Reporting on Darfuri refugees has been made more difficult by the fact that UNHCR has not regularly provided a current total for refugees, and the number used in what reporting there is on the refugee crisis has offered very substantially varying figures. A timeline of figures as reported by UNHCR and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs over the past decade appears here as APPENDIX A; it is quite possible that the present figure is considerably higher than UNHCR indicates because of significant limitations in survey tools. Disgracefully in Darfur itself, UN OCHA has been deeply irresponsible in its promulgation of figures for displacement since the tenure of Georg Charpentier (UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Darfur, 2009 – 2011). The problems have persisted: see “Displacement in Sudan and Darfur: UN figures continue to be careless, corrupt, or inadequate” | May 22, 2017 | http://wp.me/p45rOG-23o.

I have myself written regularly about the refugee situation in eastern Chad for more than a decade, trying to highlight the plight of these invisible people. Exactly one year ago I attempted ask about the number of refugees in Chad, given the challenges posed by UNHCR refusals to be consistently forthcoming:

“How Many Refugees in Chad?” | (August 9, 2016 | http://wp.me/p45rOG-1Vw/)

In late April of this year [2016] I published “Invisible, Forgotten, and Suffering: Darfuri Refugees in Eastern Chad,” (Sudan Tribune, April 28, 2016 | http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article58797/). The piece drew a sharply critical response from UN High Commission for Refugee officials in Chad, although they addressed few of the issues I raised in my piece. One issue, however, was clarified in the email exchange between me and these UNHCR officials (emails: April 29 – April 30, 2016): the number of Darfuri refugees in eastern Chad as of the time, according to UNHCR, was 302,000—well below the figure of 380,000 that UNHCR had promulgated just a year earlier (see below).

[This analysis was a follow-up to: “Darfuri Refugees in Eastern Chad: Among the world’s most forgotten people” (18 July 2014 | http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article587/]

Notably, neither UNHCR figure—302,000 or 380,000—corresponds with the present figure of “319,512.” If we assume that “302,000” was the correct figure in April 2016, this means that the Darfur refugee population in Darfur has increased by more than 17,000—a much greater figure than the recent increase of “500 people” reported by Sudan Tribune.

This sort of large fluctuation has unfortunately been the norm for UNHCR, a significant problem, given the ways in which humanitarian resources are allocated on the basis of the size of an affected population. Reports of failures to deliver food, of food shortages, lack of sheltering material, lack of medical care (and especially treatment for girls and women who have been victims of sexual violence), educational shortcomings—all have been constants, though almost never reported except by Radio Dabanga and Sudan Tribune. The report from IRIN in 2012 is a notable exception.

Genocide in Darfur Spreads to Eastern Chad

In 2005 – 2006 the ethnically-targeted violence in Darfur began to spill into eastern Chad in a way that posed serious threats to the refugee population—a development chronicled by Human Rights Watch and others:

“Darfur Bleeds: Recent Cross-Border Violence in Chad” | February 21, 2006 | http://pantheon.hrw.org/legacy/backgrounder/africa/chad0206/


The crisis in Darfur, Sudan, which has been trickling into Chad for the better part of three years, is now bleeding freely across the border. A counterinsurgency carried out by the Sudanese government and its militias against rebel groups in Darfur, characterized by war crimes and “ethnic cleansing,” has forcibly displaced almost two million civilians in Darfur and another 220,000 people who have fled across the border into Chad. The same ethnic “Janjaweed” militias that have committed systematic abuses in Darfur have staged cross-border raids into Chad, attacking Darfurian refugees and Chadian villagers alike, seizing their livestock and killing those who resist.

The government of Sudan is actively exporting the Darfur crisis to its neighbor by providing material support to Janjaweed militias and by failing to disarm or control them, by backing Chadian rebel groups that it allows to operate from bases in Darfur, and by deploying its own armed forces across