GENEVA - Nearly 30 children fleeing the war-ravaged Central African Republic have died in just a month from starvation, exhaustion and exposure after crossing into Cameroon, the UN said Friday.
“In the last month, the rate of deaths among refugee children has been particularly high,” Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the United Nations’ refugee agency, told reporters in Geneva.
Between April 14 and May 18, 29 children, the youngest a baby and the eldest nine years old, had died after crossing into Cameroon, UNHCR said.
Many refugees fleeing bloody sectarian clashes in Central African Republic have been forced to hide in the bush without food or clean water for weeks on end, and are arriving in Cameroon in “extremely poor shape,” he said.
Most of the children who had died arrived malnourished and gravely ill, Edwards said, adding that efforts to save them at therapeutic feeding centres had failed.
“Dehydration, hypothermia and severe anaemia were the main causes of death,” he said.
The UN’s World Food Programme said more than a quarter of the children arriving in Cameroon from Central Africa were suffering from acute malnutrition.
“That is well above the 15-percent emergency threshold,” WFP spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs pointed out, describing the situation as “dramatic”.
Some 85,000 refugees have arrived in Cameroon from Central Africa since December - 80 percent of them women and children - and are spread out across 300 villages, according to UNHCR.
Deeply impoverished Central Africa has been gripped by crisis since mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in a March 2013 coup, but then were replaced with an interim government in January.
Splinter groups of Seleka rebels, however, embarked on a campaign of killing, raping and looting, prompting members of the Christian majority to form vigilante “anti-balaka” groups.
The two groups have unleashed a wave of tit-for-tat killings that has left thousands dead and close to a million displaced - most of them Muslims.
Edwards pointed out Friday that anti-Balaka militiamen had been attacking refugees along the way to Cameroon and had blocked the main roads leading to that country.
As a result, the number of refugees flooding into Cameroon had dropped to around 2,000 a week from around 10,000 during the final week of March, he said.
“The journey that people are making from CAR is a journey of intimidation, starvations and death,” he said, stressing that many of those arriving in Cameroon and other countries were not only severely malnourished but also severely wounded. “Newly arriving refugees tell us that many of their family members remain trapped in the bush in CAR,” he said.
UN agencies and other aid organisations were working to meet the towering needs of the refugees in Cameroon, but funding is sorely lacking.
Of the $22.6 million the UNHCR has said it needs for its operation there this year, it has so far received just $4.2 million Edwards said. The situation for WFP was even worse, lamented Byrs, pointing out that the UN agency had requested $15.6 million but had so far received no funds.