Yaroungou is made up of several thousand refugees from the Central African Republic, most of them arriving in 2002 or 2003. Unlike the camps made up of refugees from Darfur which are located in the Sahel and Sahara, the environment of southern Chad—savanna—provides more opportunities for local integration. Local integration is a secondary strategy for refugee populations, and is often utilized in the face of long odds against the primary strategy, which is, of course, repatriation. The tertiary strategy is resettlement. Of the three strategies, clearly repatriation is preferable, but if you consider the various conflicts since the concept of “refugee” became a concern for the international community, you will see how unlikely repatriation really is, at least in major crises. Resettlement in a third, presumably resource-rich country (like the U.S.) is a long-term strategy that usually only takes care of a relatively small proportion of a large refugee population. Local integration, then, begins to makes a lot of sense.
The challenge of local integration is moving the refugee population to self-sufficiency. After years getting food from a truck, they now have to be encouraged to grow their own. As you might imagine, this is not done without considerable resistance. In Yaroungou, food rations were ended with the grant of land (from the Chadian government) surrounding the camp in 2007, and organizations were brought in to organize agricultural cooperatives where refugees as well as locals could get tools, cows, etc. for farming. If today’s interviews are any indication, things haven’t gone as well as planned. The idiom of distress in Yaroungou is food. “People are eating leaves.” “They give us seed, and some people cook it because they are too hungry to wait.” “People are dying because they have no food.”
Other aspects of local integration are perhaps working better. The conflict between locals and refugees that we heard so much about in the east is virtually unheard of here—besides the conflict between farmers and herders ubiquitous to this part of Africa (common among locals as well). Some refugees go to the local church. Local Muslims sometimes help out the Muslims in the camps. The dark side is that some locals come to look for wives in the camps because the dowries are much smaller—10,000 CFA (about 20 USD). And then there is prostitution on the part of some single women in the camp. “They go out of the camp, they come back with money, and some have AIDS.” UNHCR has identified single women as a vulnerable group in order to provide them some aid, but the fact that people talk about it makes me think that more is going on.
Perhaps the hardest part of today was talking to some young boys (10-14 y.o.). We take pictures around the camp and then show the pictures to them to give them a point of discussion. From this you can get their perceptions about their surroundings, maybe something about dangerous places, and often a discussion about who has money and who doesn’t (especially with pictures in the market). A picture of a pile of trash elicited a discussion of dirty places and sickness. But one little boy said that sometimes boys look for food in piles of trash, sometimes even “for one ground nut” (a peanut). As we were preparing to leave, I started to sweep out the seat of our Land Cruiser, and picked up five or six peanuts. I was about to throw them on the ground by the truck, then thought of the boy and stopped. I held them in my hand and stared at them. With the crowd of 20-30 children surrounding us, my handful would create mayhem on the ground; but I didn’t want to throw them back on the seat. I just held them in my hand.