While the displacement of millions of Syrians is the focus of worldwide attention, the crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) has been unfolding with far less visibility. Yet the numbers of those affected by the CAR conflict are alarming. As a result of sectarian violence in a country that had a centuries-old tradition of peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims, more than one in five of its 4.25 million inhabitants have been displaced and nearly half of the population is urgently in need of assistance.
"The Central African Republic is falling through the cracks of international attention,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said during a brief trip to the country earlier this year, where he called the crisis "a humanitarian catastrophe of unspeakable proportion.”
As of mid-May 554,800 persons had been displaced inside the CAR and 359,834 had sought refuge in neighboring countries, according to UNHCR estimates.
The Christian-majority country, which has been marked by failing government, violent conflict, and poverty for decades, plunged into deeper trouble following a coup d'état by the predominantly Muslim Séléka militia in March 2013. Within the past six months alone, nearly 121,000 refugees have fled to neighboring countries.
The sectarian violence and forced displacement of civilians, overwhelmingly Muslim, is occurring against the backdrop of a very weak, mostly absent central state—one whose inability to provide security and meet the basic needs of its population is exacerbating the crisis.
This article examines the historical roots of the CAR’s instability and conflict, causes for the recent displacement, the humanitarian response to the current crisis, the situation confronted by refugees as well as internally displaced persons, and international community reaction.
A Country in Crisis
A former French colony, the Central African Republic has experienced political instability and violent conflict since the mid-1990s, when civilian rule was first implemented. In 2003, General Franҫois Bozizé overthrew the elected government in a coup, becoming president. Bozizé’s presidency was marked by conflict, leading to the formation of the Muslim rebel coalition Séléka. The seeds of the current crisis can be traced to Bozizé's attempt to remain in power by inciting sectarian anger to delegitimize Séléka. Following an armed offensive in December 2012 by Séléka rebels, Bozizé’s administration was toppled in March 2013.
Once in power, the Séléka committed acts of brutality and systematic human-rights abuses that led to massive displacement across the country. Although both Muslims and Christians were targeted, the Séléka's oppressive rule was largely directed against the Christian community. The Séléka commander installed as President, Michel Djotodia, formally disbanded the coalition, though it splintered into multiple armed factions that continued looting and killing.
As opposition against the Séléka mounted, Christian anti-Balaka militias formed and began armed operations in September 2013, targeting not only the Séléka, but also Muslim civilians. The balance of power rapidly shifted in favor of the anti-Balaka militias, which took over Séléka-controlled territory and targeted Muslim civilians in a spree of rape, torture, and extrajudicial executions that Amnesty International and others have referred to as ethnic cleansing against Muslims. UNHCR estimates that 90 percent of the displaced population is Muslim.
Amid international diplomatic efforts to quell the violence, Djotodia resigned on January 10, 2014 and headed into exile; a new interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, was sworn in almost two weeks later.
Large parts of the western half of the country still are effectively controlled by the anti-Balaka militias, although there are signs that the former Séléka fighters have regrouped and are increasingly engaging the anti-Balaka in battle.
Peacekeeping Efforts and Humanitarian Assistance
The United Nations deployed peace-keeping forces to the CAR in 2010 through the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office (BINUCA), with a mandate to help consolidate peace and strengthen democratic institutions. That presence was expanded by the UN Security Council in fall and winter 2013 as the situation deteriorated. The Security Council ordered the deployment of approximately 6,000 uniformed personnel as part of an additional International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA). The approximately 6,000 uniformed personnel deployed as part of MISCA have been complemented by a 2,000-strong French peacekeeping force.
Most recently, the United Nations in April announced plans to establish the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in CAR (MINUSCA). MISCA will transfer its authority to MINUSCA in September; the initial deployment is comprised of 10,000 military and 1,800 police personnel. Additionally, the European Union has deployed a 1,000-strong military contingent mandated by the UN Security Council. While the French and EU presences are centered in Bangui, with the French also present in a few towns in other regions, MISCA forces are mainly deployed in the western part of the country, where entire Muslim communities have been forced to flee.
Aid agencies present in the CAR, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR, have helped Muslims leave the country, as well as organized their internal relocation to safer regions. In support of these efforts, MISCA and the French forces aim to secure the safe passage of thousands of Muslims to neighboring countries. Despite having peacekeepers as escort, refugee convoys have come under attack from anti-Balaka forces.
Distribution of desperately needed humanitarian aid has proven difficult due to insecurity and poor infrastructure. Although peacekeeping troops police the streets of Bangui, many communities are cut off from humanitarian aid and extremely vulnerable to attacks by the anti-Balaka militias. Staff members of international nongovernmental organizations operating in the CAR, such as Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF), have repeatedly been targeted in violent attacks. In the northwestern city of Boguila, the killing of 16 civilians and three MSF humanitarian workers caused the organization to temporarily reduce its activities.
The Situation of IDPs
Heavy fighting beginning in December 2013 between the Séléka and anti-Balaka militias sparked major upheaval within the country, resulting in hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs). The number of IDPs and refugees reportedly peaked in mid-January 2014 at 958,000, and currently stands at about 914,000.
IDPs accounted for approximately 554,800 of the total displacement as of May, with nearly 130,000 located at 43 sites in Bangui. Sufficient data on the movement of IDPs outside Bangui is scarce, largely due to the restricted movement of government and international actors beyond the nation’s capital.
IOM reports that while 57 percent of IDPs want to return to their communities of origin, the main obstacles for their return are stolen belongings, lack of financial means, and continuing insecurity.
IDPs are scattered throughout the country, many in temporary and inadequate shelters. The smaller IDP sites have received little or no humanitarian assistance. UNHCR reports more than 20,000 individuals remained trapped in 11 locations, five of which are assessed as being at a very high risk of anti-Balaka attacks. In order to survive, many IDPs have substantially reduced their food consumption, IOM reports. As the rainy season progresses, many IDP sites will become unsustainable and there will be an increased need to provide shelter for the affected population. Additionally, humanitarian organizations fear that many IDPs will be exposed to malaria and water-borne diseases.
The Situation of Refugees in Neighboring Countries
Approximately 192,000 refugees had fled to Cameroon as of mid-May, according to UNHCR estimates. The inflow of refugees outweighs the capacity of the aid agencies present in the Cameroon border region, such as UNHCR, the Red Cross, and MSF. As of January, the UN World Food Program (WFP) began providing food for 27,000 refugees in camps, and was planning to expand its response to provide food for 70,000 refugees between June and December 2014. Aid agencies and local health services are overstrained with the influx of refugees, who often arrive dehydrated, wounded, or traumatized. Cameroon health officials have confirmed an increase in cases of polio, which they partially link to the increase in refugees from the CAR.
The refugee arrivals also have taxed Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Citizens of Chadian origin and Chadians residing in the CAR—who are widely perceived to be associated with the Séléka—have been targeted by anti-Balaka militias. Consequently, an estimated 94,000 people have fled to Chad, straining already scarce aid resources. The Chadian government earlier this year established an air bridge and a humanitarian corridor in order to support the refugees. Moreover, almost 58,000 refugees fled to the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), to already destabilized regions such as Orientale Province; around 16,000 refugees are located in the Republic of Congo (ROC).
The Impact of Displacement on the CAR
Displacement and insecurity have disrupted agricultural cultivation and trade in the CAR. As the majority of the country’s traders are Muslim, the forced displacement of the Muslim population has had severe consequences for trade and food security. Agricultural output plunged 37 percent in 2013, according to a recent special report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the WFP, which estimates that 1.6 million people are in need of urgent food assistance. The two organizations project the country will be in need of humanitarian aid for at least the next 18 months; insecurity, however, impedes the delivery of assistance.
Beyond short-term humanitarian responses, returnees will need development assistance to restart their livelihoods; the homes of many IDPs have been looted or destroyed. Moreover, some IDPs occupy houses that were deserted when they arrived. If the owners return to find their homes occupied, this might give rise to further tensions.
The Impact of Refugees in Neighboring Countries
The large displacement of refugees from the CAR to neighboring countries places a strain on their resources. And the inflow of Muslim refugees may affect the ethnic and religious balance in other countries in the region already suffering from sectarian and inter-ethnic conflicts. In addition, it is possible that some combatants will also cross the border to neighboring countries with the stream of refugees and use the host country to regroup or punish their adversaries. Already, Séléka combatants have crossed the border into Cameroon, leading to a spillover of conflict, which is manifested by violence and tightened security measures.
Furthermore, refugees are likely to strain the education and health facilities of their host countries. Refugees may also deplete natural resources and exacerbate existing environmental issues such as desertification by cutting down trees and shrubs for firewood. Access to arable land is a key issue for refugees, yet may give rise to tensions with host communities where land is scarce.
Reaction of International Actors to Displacement
The UN has targeted its response to support the needs of the conflict-affected population, mainly IDPs. The Strategic Response Plan for 2014, prepared by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), has revised its requirement for international assistance to US $551 million, an increase of more than 120 percent relative to the original plan. International contributions to fund the plan remain inadequate, however; just 30 percent of required funding had been secured as of June 5. Approximately one-third of the budget request is designated for food security. Given the looming food crisis in the CAR, shortages in funding provide a grim outlook on the displacement and humanitarian crisis.
In addition, the Inter-Agency Regional Response Plan for 2014 requests US $274 million to assist Central Africans who have sought refuge in neighboring countries, with the majority of the funds allocated for refugee and host community needs in Chad, followed by the DRC, Cameroon, and ROC.
As stated in the response plans, the challenge is to secure the safety and livelihood of the displaced population in the CAR and the neighboring countries. In the long run, facilitating the return of the displaced population or promoting durable solutions for the displaced population in their host countries or communities, such as local integration, will be a key priority. However, this critically depends on an improvement of the security situation. Humanitarian agencies already have started evaluating the needs of returnees and are considering them in their program planning.
There is no near-term relief in sight for IDPs and refugees ensnared in the violence and instability that have hit the Central African Republic; enduring insecurity and consequent difficulties in the delivery of much-needed humanitarian assistance have left the displaced population in dire need of help. Peacekeeping efforts have not succeeded in curtailing the violence. Disarming the anti-Balaka and remaining Séléka elements will be crucial to restoring security.
Displacement and insecurity have significantly reduced agricultural production. The substantial lack of international funding for the humanitarian response adds further to the grim outlook. And beyond the near term, the displacement crisis represents a development challenge for the international humanitarian community and the CAR to restore the livelihood of returnees.
The ongoing sectarian violence has forced predominantly Muslims to flee. Return migration will have to be accompanied by community reconciliation and social cohesion activities, which will be crucial to the successful reintegration of the returnees and the prevention of a resurgence of sectarian violence. In this context, it will be paramount to strengthen the state institutions of a country that has long been destabilized if it is to move beyond a cycle of violence that has resulted in a humanitarian crisis of devastating proportions and return to its tradition of peaceful co-existence.
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