- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2008

NGALA, Nigeria (AP) — Africa’s newest refugees squat on dingy donated mattresses as they turn yet another abandoned building into a temporary home.

Tens of thousands of people fled when rebels attacked the capital of Chad last month. At one point, as many as 3,000 were in this Nigerian border post two countries away from home — the farthest-flung outpost in an archipelago of camps linked to the strife in Sudan’s Darfur region.

About 2.4 million people in Africa are refugees, and most are the picture of grief: scared, hungry, dressed in rags and worried for their children’s health.

But their camps can shelter fighters, too, and are seen in other ways as conduits for instability and conflict like the fight in Darfur that has scattered people into camps across Central and West Africa.

“Africa’s poorly organized, and its problems are a question of war and poverty,” said Doro Dingaon, a 20-year-old Chadian who fled the Feb. 2-3 battle for N’Djamena, sheltering at a dilapidated building in this dusty town on the Nigeria-Cameroon border. “Refugees can’t help with these problems. When Chadians come to Nigeria, it just spreads misery.”

With the establishment of the camp at Ngala and one for 30,000 people to the east across Cameroon, on that country’s border with Chad, those homeless in the Sudan-Chad conflict are now sheltering in five countries: Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic, Cameroon and Nigeria.

The battle between government-allied militia fighters and autonomy-seeking rebels in Sudan’s Darfur region is now becoming a textbook case of how one war infects other countries. Chad’s government is thought to be supporting the Darfur rebels, who have rear bases in Chad, and Sudan is accused of aiding Chadian rebels.

From the now-dormant conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast to the ongoing tumult in eastern Congo linked to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, camps like those in Ngala have played a role in spreading and perpetuating conflict, analysts say.

In West Africa, Liberia’s fight spilled over to Sierra Leone and on to Ivory Coast, with fighters roaming the area, often attacking refugee camps to steal food aid and other supplies. Camps also became important recruiting grounds for armed factions, who would entice young men into carrying weapons to escape camp lives of boredom and dependence.

In Central Africa, militia fighters behind the 1994 genocide in Rwanda fled over the border into Congo, where many still live and continue to attack Congo’s people.

The militia presence in Congo was the spark for two wars in that vast nation, with Rwanda seeking to rout the militia fighters. Camp administrators, most often the United Nations, are charged with keeping the camps free of weapons, but the task is difficult in a chaotic, sprawling area sometimes housing more than 100,000 people.

“By definition, refugee flows are destabilizing. Refugee movements are the product of political and violent conflict, so they can be a destabilizing factor in that armed groups can be present in the camps and carry on the struggle,” said Joel Charny, of the Washington-based aid agency Refugees International.

“I don’t want to suggest that the refugees themselves have nefarious motives, but the fact is that the camps can be locations for carrying on the conflict, and that causes problems for the refugees and the host countries themselves.”

Refugees crossing borders also find themselves squatting on indigenous peoples’ lands and competing for scarce resources such as water or firewood, which causes friction in the local communities.

Before the United Nations moved in late last month to provide latrines, food and water, conditions in a camp for Chadians in Cameroon were grim. Water was scarce, and food prices were soaring without aid. Refugees reported that the price of a piece of bread had increased fourfold overnight and was heading higher.

The camps also may cause environmental degradation as the countryside is denuded of its trees, which become fuel for cooking.

In this way, the struggle for resource control that is behind most of Africa’s conflicts is transferred to new lands.

Not all refugees are impoverished, and many bring cash into the areas around their camps and develop trading relationships. Also, international aid groups helping the refugees arrive with foreign currencies, hiring local guides and renting out buildings for their offices and homes.

In the Cameroonian town of Kousseri, just across the border from Chad’s capital, only one room in the city’s seven main hotels was available in the days after the fighting in the Chadian capital.

But for many refugees in Kousseri, the situation can mean only greater impoverishment.

“This can’t be good for Africa, to have refugees like this,” said Raoul Allasoum, a 40-year-old father of six who was staying at the camp. “This means there’s no peace, and no peace means no development.”

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