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Unexpectedly high number of refugees cross into Chad to flee fighting in Sudan

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United Nations refugee agency says fighting between rival armies in Sudan has displaced nearly 1 million people. In just over a month, up to 90,000 of them have traveled from Sudan to neighboring Chad. Raouf Mazou is in Chad. He is an assistant secretary-general and operations head for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and he spoke with our colleague, Leila Fadel.

RAOUF MAZOU: The scale is enormous. A few weeks ago, when colleagues were planning for a possible number of people that would cross into the country, they were thinking that over a period of six months, they could have up to a hundred thousand people crossing. But what we're seeing now, just one month and a few days into the crisis, is close to 100,000 people who've already crossed. Very, very difficult - people who are along the border, 90% women and children arriving and in very, very difficult conditions.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

When you say difficult conditions, can you describe those - some examples, what people are dealing with?

MAZOU: They cross, and they arrive with virtually nothing, for many of them, and then they find themselves on the border. We basically give them a bit of plastic sheeting for them to shelter themselves. And then, basically, that's that. And, of course, we're also trying to provide food assistance and other items, but that's very temporary. And then from there, what we need to do is to transport them away from the border into either existing settlement, if there is still space in these settlements, or into newly established ones.

FADEL: Now, Chad is already home to hundreds of thousands of refugees. I think the estimate's around 600,000. Can Chad - and does the UNHCR have what it needs to deal with this sudden new influx?

MAZOU: No. It is indeed very difficult. Chad has been receiving already, just before this crisis, was receiving 600,000 refugees from all over the region. They were receiving 400,000 Sudanese refugees from a previous conflict. And adding another 100,000 refugees in a very poor part of the country is going to be extremely difficult. But what has to be underlined is, what we saw is the extraordinary solidarity and generosity of people who have very little and yet are prepared to welcome people who are fleeing danger and provide them with the little that they can. So that solidarity is essential. Now, what we are hoping is that the situation will be such that people will be able to return. But, unfortunately, we don't see such signs for the time being.

FADEL: What are the most urgent needs right now?

MAZOU: Most urgent need is definitely shelter, the logistics that are required to bring assistance to people where they are and then bring them out from the borders to the camp. Health care is absolutely essential. Being able to provide them, also, with clean water and, of course, food assistance, which is, in these kind of circumstances, absolutely essential.

FADEL: All of that costs money. What amount is needed from the international community to respond to this crisis?

MAZOU: So last week we launched an appeal for refugees arriving into neighboring countries for about $472 million. But, again, that was for six months and for a total of a million people. And we know that we are, unfortunately, likely to reach this number before we reach six months. So this support is very much needed, and we count very much on the international community to provide the support that is required.

FADEL: Beyond Chad, the larger - I mean, Sudanese are fleeing to any neighboring country if they can get out. How many people, total, are refugees now from this crisis?

MAZOU: We've passed 260,000 people who've fled into neighboring countries. The country which has received the largest number of refugees is Egypt. But we should also keep in mind that Sudan, before the crisis, had over a million refugees, many of them South Sudanese. And many of these South Sudanese are now going back to their place of origin.

FADEL: You said that, ideally, what you want to see is for the conflict to end so that people can return home. Do you have any hope, as we see these cease-fires called and falter, called and falter and the fighting continue?

MAZOU: We must maintain hope because this is what we have. But we have to also call on the parties of the conflict to remind them of their responsibility vis-a-vis civilians. And that's what the whole international community is doing.

FADEL: The U.N. refugee agency's assistant secretary-general, Raouf Mazou, thank you so much for your time.

MAZOU: Thank you very much. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.