Poverty-stricken Chad shows Europe how to host refugees

A refugee camp in eastern Chad. [European Commission DG ECHO]

The influx of refugees into Europe is put into perspective by Chad, a nation of 13 million that is playing host to 645,000 displaced persons. EURACTIV’s partner El País – Planeta Futuro reports.

One African country has enough moral high ground to give the West a lesson in humanity. Chad, a landlocked nation and one of the poorest in the world, has an average life expectancy of 51, only half the population have access to clean drinking water and more than 3 million people are vulnerable to food insecurity.

Despite its 13 million inhabitants, endemic corruption, threat of terrorism from Boko Haram, and the effect of falling oil prices, Chad quietly shares its meagre resources with more than 645,000 people who have fled war and persecution in neighbouring countries.

Chad has had the same President, Idriss Déby since 1990 and is ninth on the global list of countries with the most migrants within its borders. The seemingly hopeless situation the nation finds itself in puts into perspective Europe’s need to find room for 120,000 asylum seekers in an area that is already home to 500 million citizens.

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“We are aware of the situation in other parts of the world, but we are in dire need of help. Chad cannot deal with this alone,” said Mahamat Ali Hassane, governor of the Moyen-Chari region that hosts refugees who have fled the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR). El País accepted an invite to visit the area from Oxfam Intermón and ECHO, the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department.

After a succession of wars, invasions and dictatorships, the former French colony has teetered on the edge of total collapse. Chad currently ranks 184th out of 187 on the United Nation’s human development index (HDI) and is the fourth-poorest country in the world behind Niger, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the CAR.

In the north of the country, the effects of the Libyan conflict and arms trafficking are felt. To the south, anti-balaka Christian militias clash with Muslim Séléka forces in the CAR. In the west, the terrorist group Boko Haram is extremely active and in the east, racially-motivated fighting in Sudan and South Sudan spills over the border.

The numerous conflicts have caused the displacement of thousands of people and the closure of national borders, which “affects the political, social and economic stability of the country and the lives of the population,” said Mamadou Cire Diallo, director of Oxfam Intermón in Chad.

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Déby, more interested in consolidating his own power than lifting his countrymen out of poverty, governs the nation with an iron fist. He is accused on numerous counts of corruption and of making repression a common practice in the country. However, perhaps paradoxically, the president, who is facing new elections in 2016, has in recent years shown solidarity with those displaced by war.

Under its mandate, his government, which this year has received €234 million in humanitarian aid out of a planned €502 million, has allocated land to be used to house refugees and has accepted people from neighbouring countries who are of Chadian origin. In the meantime, Europe has questioned Angela Merkel’s alleged ‘excessive’ hospitality and has discussed the construction of settlements outside of the EU area to tackle the crisis that has been largely caused by the Syrian war.

Chad’s population has also supported their president, showing striking generosity in certain regions where more and more thirsty and hungry people arrive. In Sido, a small town a kilometre from the border with the CAR, 4,000 local families have provided shelter to 18,000 displaced people from the other side of the border. In the region of Mandoul, 12,500 have been taken in by the local community.

This solidarity shown by local populations is especially significant when the impact of the extra mouths-to-feed is analysed. According to Oxfam Intermón, the provision of basic needs has fallen by 50%, there are empty shelves in supermarkets near the CAR border, the price of staple foods has soared by 70% and access to water in many affected villages has fallen from 58% to 36% since the start of the crisis.

Mahamat Saleh, a local official, explains that there has been no conflict between the resident population and the new arrivals, because “they share the same origin, language and blood”.

Another possible explanation for the surprisingly peaceful cohabitation, in a nation that is 53% Muslim and 35% Christian, is humanitarian aid. In the south, the local population benefits from NGO projects that concentrate on food and seed distribution, the construction of toilets and the provision of clean drinking water.

Saleh admitted that the local population had benefitted, but that there were certainly still problems, especially on the issue of food prices, where the cost of a chicken had doubled. Border closures have only exacerbated the problem, as this has impacted heavily on livestock trade.

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Bechir Yacouba, another local official in Sido, said, “People are living on humanitarian aid, but what happens when the programmes end?”

In areas where the emergency is deemed to be over, humanitarian organisations attempt to reduce the dependency on aid of those affected. Oxfam Intermón and ECHO, for example, have built wells and run agricultural programmes on a yearly budget of €750,000, helping 1,400 families live on smallholdings. They distributed coupons worth around €50 each, which beneficiaries could use to buy seeds during the rainy season and farming equipment. When the rains ease off, 530 families receive around €30 each and guidance on how to farm lettuce, melons, tomatoes and cucumbers.

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The first programme started in May, and seed and equipment were distributed in June, with crops being collected now. The project will end in 2016 due to lack of funding explained Tahp Yussine Fadoul, who is responsible for food security in the Maro area of Chad. To foster self-sufficiency, it is estimated that families need to be exposed to at least two years of this kind of programme.

“The majority of the area’s population are able to work. They must now fend for themselves. It isn’t a widespread problem, but a certain part of the population, which has been receiving aid, has become accustomed to it and do not want to work,” said Kossia Nicole who is responsible for Oxfam Intermón’s aid programmes in Chad. “We can’t be responsible for them forever. The emergency is over.”

Ending aid-dependency is nothing though. After all, this is a nation that has to contend with devastating natural disasters in the form of droughts and floods, which has hamstrung development. The country’s excessive dependency on oil, which the IMF warned against previously, has come back to bite it after the global fall in prices. This, coupled with increased military spending to combat Boko Haram, has led to a 20% reduction in funding for social programmes and infrastructure.

“The dead heart of Africa,” as the country is sometimes called, has to contend with all these hardships, while one half of its impoverished citizens have to live on €3 a day. Yet, it seems that the vast majority have no problem sharing what little they have with those who need it.

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