(New York) – Members of armed paramilitary groups are a serious threat to civilians who fled violence and insecurity and are now returning to their villages, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. People who have returned to their home regions have been killed, forcibly recruited into paramilitary groups, and threatened with death by armed men who in many cases have seized their land.
The 47-page report, "The Risk of Return: Repatriating the Displaced in the Context of Conflict in Eastern Chad," documents abuses against people who have been returning to their villages from camps for displaced persons in southeastern Chad. The Chadian government should work to improve security in rural areas where many of the displaced are returning. At the same time, the United Nations should make sure that food aid continues to displaced persons living in camps so that they are not compelled to cultivate crops in unsafe areas, the report says.
"Displaced persons who return to their home villages face threats, intimidation and physical violence at the hands of armed groups," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Chadian government, the UN and humanitarian organizations should ensure assistance to the displaced supports returns in safety and dignity."
The UN peacekeeping operation in eastern Chad, known as MINURCAT, has designated return of a "critical mass" of internally displaced peoples to their home villages as one criterion for measuring the success of the mission. However, the government's army, police and gendarmes are rarely encountered anywhere in the east except for large, well-defended towns. That leaves returnees with little protection against armed groups ranging from Chadian rebel factions to loosely organized criminal gangs. Many of those who tried to return told Human Rights Watch that armed men had seized their property and threatened to kill them if they did not go back to the camps.
The peacekeeping force - mandated by the UN Security Council to protect civilians in eastern Chad, particularly those returning and those still displaced - may have deterred a resumption of organized violence against civilians, but it has been unable to fill the security vacuum left by the lack of a functioning state security apparatus. "The Risk of Return" outlines steps that the Chadian government, the United Nations and donor governments can take to ensure that people who choose to return to their villages can return voluntarily in safety and with dignity, and that humanitarian assistance continues for those who remain in the camps or other places to which they had fled.
Many of the people interviewed told Human Rights Watch that insufficient food rations and an inability to find arable land near the camps compelled them to venture back into remote agricultural areas where insecurity and banditry make it impossible for most humanitarian agencies to operate. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) phased out food aid for the internally displaced people in 2008, but began to provide limited rations again in April 2009 following an emergency food security assessment. But those remaining in the camps say that the renewed assistance is not enough to feed their families, so they are forced to find other sources of food.
Human Rights Watch called for staggered and deliberate efforts to return the displaced to villages that can support spontaneous returns, along with guaranteed assistance for those who stay in their displacement sites, or who relocate to safer areas of the country. Tensions also have emerged between people who are returning and communities that were not displaced over differential access to humanitarian aid, which generally favors those who were displaced. The United Nations Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA) should review humanitarian assistance programs to ensure that they benefit civilians in greatest need of food aid and health care.
"The Risk of Return" recognizes that the protection and assistance of internally displaced persons is the primary responsibility of the government. Human Rights Watch called on the Chadian government to hold those responsible for committing serious violations of human rights against civilians - including returnees - accountable for their crimes.
"The Chadian government, with support from the UN, needs to strengthen the weak police presence in eastern Chad, especially in areas where people are now going back," said Gagnon. "Internally displaced Chadians have the same rights as any other citizens, and that includes protection from the bandits and paramilitary groups that rule the rural areas in eastern Chad."
Widespread militia attacks in eastern Chad that began in late 2005 left hundreds of civilians dead and forced at least 180,000 into camps for internally displaced persons, mostly in the southeastern border region of Dar Sila. An estimated 27,000 of these people returned to their villages in eastern Chad in 2008, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA).
In response to militia violence against civilians in eastern Chad, the UN Security Council approved the United Nations Mission in Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT) in September 2007. A European Union bridging force, known as EUFOR, deployed 3,300 soldiers to eastern Chad for a one-year period ending in March 2009. In January 2009, the UN Security Council replaced EUFOR with UN peacekeeping troops, and established a set of benchmarks to evaluate the success of the mission that included the return of internally displaced persons to their areas of origin.