As concerns mount that Sudan's Darfur conflict could draw neighboring countries into a regional war, the United Nations (UN) is taking the first steps to relocate thousands of refugees from Chad's volatile border with Sudan.
After a top Chadian official urged the UN to move the refugees, a delegation – consisting of officials from the UN High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Programme, and CNAR, the Chadian refugee agency – visited several locations in central Chad two weeks ago to evaluate their viability as potential replacement sites for the camps closest to the Sudanese border.
Kurt Tjossem, the east African deputy regional director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), estimates the price tag for moving the most vulnerable camp – Oure Cassoni, located in northern Chad, just four miles from Sudan – to be between $900,000 and $1.8 million. But the colossal logistical challenges inherent in such a move, which comes at a time when the country is roiled by violence and the majority of its aid workers have left, will not be the hard part, he says.
"There's nothing too complicated in moving people from A to B if they actually want it," Mr. Tjossem wrote in an e-mail. "The major difficulty lies in the refugees' refusal to move."
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres was expected to discuss that difficulty with government officials and aid workers during his two-day visit to Chad, which concludes Friday.
In interviews with Darfur refugees inside Oure Cassoni one thing seems clear: They don't want to go anywhere.
"I want to stay here because Sudan, Chad, and CAR are problem countries," says Amadallha Daihiy Hakar, a father speaking outside a tent where aid workers, government officials, and refugee leaders met last week to discuss the relocation issue, among others. "If anything happens in Chad, it's better for me and my family to go into Sudan. There are mountains and valleys we can hide in there."
UNHCR officials are especially concerned about Oure Cassoni, where more than 26,000 refugees are currently living, because they believe it has to close to areas of fighting and has been infiltrated by members of a Sudanese rebel group. The fear is that the Sudanese government might begin to view the camp as a safe haven for rebels and will consider it a legitimate military target.
At a press conference in N'djamena held at the end of November, Chad's Foreign Minister Ahmat Allam-mi said that moving the refugees would help dispel allegations by Sudan that rebels are utilizing the camps along the border as bases.
He called it "essential" for all 12 camps to be relocated in order to protect the refugees and help improve security in the region.
Also to improve security, the US is pushing Sudan to agree by year's end to having an international force in the area – and Wednesday threatened unspecified consequences if Sudan refuses. Options from travel bans on Sudanese officials and an assets freeze to imposing a no-fly zone in Darfur are reportedly under consideration.
On its recently concluded trip, the team of relief officials and government representatives evaluated a total of 12 sites around the towns of Moussoro, Salal, Kouba-Oulanga, and Koro-Toro, all of which are more than 300 miles from the border with Sudan and likely to be much safer.
A site can only be suitable to support a refugee camp if it satisfies a number of conditions, such as having an available water supply and the infrastructure necessary to establish a hospital. Equally important is finding a location where the ethnic makeup of the population will allow for peaceful coexistence with the refugees.
UN officials said the team identified four sites as having potential, with another round of evaluations to follow.
Relief officials acknowledge that a substantial number of refugees currently oppose moving further into Chad's interior, but they are optimistic that the Darfurians' views will shift.
"Once you get those first movements, others will follow," said Helene Caux, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR.
Ms. Caux noted that after bloody clashes broke out in October near Oure Cassoni, the sentiment among the refugees was far different than it is now. "In the days after the (fighting), they all wanted to move," she said.
Still, refugee leaders inside Oure Cassoni appear, at least for the time being, to be intransigent.
"The refugees here refuse to move [further] inside Chad," says Fatiya Yussuf, a young mother of three from northern Darfur. "If the government tries to move this camp, we'll move back to Darfur."
For months, the UN has said that the camps closest to the border, Oure Cassoni and Am Nabak, in particular, needed to be set up further west because of their vulnerability to attack and suspected rebel infiltration.
Heavy fighting has broken out between government forces and Chadian rebel groups over the past few months that, at times, has come perilously close to the camps. There have also been attacks by Arab militiamen, known as janjaweed, against black Africans near the camps further south along the border, mirroring the deadly violence in Darfur.
Just this past week, five Sudanese refugees were among about 30 people killed by Arab raiders on horseback outside the Goz Amir refugee camp, which is located approximately 60 miles from the border.
Still, if Abdel Jabar Zakaria, a refugee leader at Oure Cassoni, is any indication, Tjossem and his counterparts at the UNHCR and CNAR will have their work cut out for them.
"We don't want to move inside Chad," Zakaria said, before referring directly to the camp that's been his home since Jan. 2004.
"There are no attacks from the outside, no problems on the inside.... We feel safe here."