Dozens of Central African refugees have died from starvation and many more are seriously ill from hunger and exhaustion after fleeing the conflict-ravaged country for Cameroon, the UN warned Friday.
Nearly 50 people, at least 33 of them children, have died from severe malnutrition after reaching Cameroon in the first two months of the year, said a spokeswoman for the United Nations' refugee agency UNHCR.
“The situation of the refugees is particularly alarming,” Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba told reporters in Geneva.
“Some 80 percent of the latest arrivals suffer ailments such as malaria, diarrhoea and respiratory infections. More than 20 percent of children are severely malnourished,” she added.
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.
One woman, whose husband had been killed in the violence, “lost six of her nine children to hunger” during the journey, Lejeune-Kaba said.
“Many have lost relatives to hunger along the way or shortly after reaching Cameroon,” she said.
The Central African Republic has been torn apart since the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted president Francois Bozize a year ago and replaced him with their leader Michel Djotodia.
Violence - including murders, rapes and torched homes - has continued despite Djotodia's ouster in January, as mostly Christian anti-balaka (anti-machete) vigilantes have taken their revenge on local Muslims.
Thousands have been killed and around a quarter of the country's 4.6 million people displaced as 8 000 African and French peacekeeping troops struggle to rein in the militias terrorising the population.
Cameroon has received more than 44 000 more refugees from Central African in the past year, adding to the 92 000 who were there before the crisis began, according to the UNHCR.
Most refugees are being forced to make the perilous journey to Cameroon by foot after the Chadian government stopped using trucks to evacuate its nationals, Lejeune-Kaba said.
“New arrivals are living with host families or sheltering in mosques, churches, a stadium... Some are sleeping out in the open,” Lejeune-Kaba said.
UNHCR recently moved nearly 10 000 people who had been sleeping out in the open in Cameroon to settlements, where they now receive food, clean water, shelter and basic relief items, Lejeune-Kaba added.