On 20 January, senior representatives from the UN, governments and NGOs met in Brussels to take action on the humanitarian crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Here are six things you need to know about a situation that has been called a “mega crisis”:
1. The crisis is incredibly severe, but it isn’t new. CAR is one of the poorest countries in the world. It ranks 179th out of 187 countries, and has been embroiled in a decades-long series of armed conflicts. It was already labelled a “development disaster” when, in December 2012, rebel forces in the north began to march on the capital, Bangui. These rebels, who came to be known as Séléka (coalition in the local Sango language) overthrew the government in March 2013.
In the months that followed, insecurity and violence continued almost unabated, affecting all of the country’s 4.6 million people. There was a gradual and inexorable breakdown of law and order, as well as the total collapse of administration and basic services throughout the country. The crisis reached a head in the final months of 2013 when outbreaks of fighting between ex-Séléka elements and so-called Anti-Balaka civil defence groups led to arbitrary killings and looting, culminating in clashes in Bangui on 5 December and the resignation of the country’s interim President, Michel Djotodia.
2. More than half the population of CAR is now in need of humanitarian assistance. An estimated 2.5 million people – well over half of the country’s 4.6 million residents – are in need of humanitarian assistance. One in five people have fled their home. Just over 900,000 Central Africans are now living in 115 makeshift sites and host communities dotted across the country, including 500,000 people displaced in the month following the 5 December clashes. Almost 250,000 Central African refugees live in neighbouring countries.
3. All schools in the country have been closed since December 2013. More than 60 per cent of schools in Bangui are housing people displaced by the fighting. According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), about 2.5 million children have been affected by the fighting. Many have been forced to join armed groups and exposed to sexual violence.
“Recent months have been a time of horrific violence, suffering and fear for children in the Central African Republic,” said UNICEF’s Executive Director Anthony Lake who visited CAR this month. “They have suffered death and injury and have witnessed terrible things that no child should ever see, much less endure. Too many have been displaced from their homes, separated from their families and recruited by armed groups.”
4. An estimated 90 per cent of people are eating just one meal a day as a result of persistent insecurity and the collapse of local markets. The World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that it is running out of food for the growing number of displaced people in the country.
The agency reported that 38 of its trucks laden with rice were stuck at the Cameroon border with the drivers refusing to cross due to the threat of attacks. "Suspending food distributions could lead to further tension, particularly among the 100,000 displaced people in the overcrowded Bangui airport camp," WFP warned.
5. The UN and its humanitarian partners are scaling up their presence across CAR despite very real security concerns and access constraints. Aid workers face enormous challenges in delivering assistance to people in need consistently.
“Security and protection of civilians and aid workers raise serious concerns. We call on all parties to allow humanitarian organizations to operate unhindered,” said UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos and EU Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, Kristalina Georgieva in a joint statement.
6. Pleas for funding are finally being heeded. Despite the chronic needs of Central African communities, aid agencies in CAR have lacked funding to reach all those in need. However, at the Brussels High-Level Meeting, the EU and Member States pledged US$496 million, including just over $200 million for humanitarian assistance. In all, aid agencies estimate that they will need $550 million for 2014.
“Our thanks to our donors […] who have pledged to give so generously,” said USG Amos at the end of the meeting.
On the same day the European Union also announced a plan to send troops to CAR in an effort to bolster security. There are already about 4,500 African Union troops and 1,600 French troops.
“The key thing that came out [of the meeting] was the importance of linking our humanitarian work to a broader stabilization agenda and indeed to the reconciliation efforts which are going on throughout the Central African Republic,” said Ms. Amos.