Première Urgence Internationale is taking on the management of all the refugee camps in Cameroon. Claire Arnaud has just got back from working for 6 months as Première Urgence Internationale’s Emergency Technical Advisor in Batouri. She kindly agreed to explain what exactly her role there involved.

What does an Emergency Technical Advisor do?

The role is huge. First, there is the part of the job linked to the management and co-ordination of refugee camps:  you act as a representative during co-ordinating meetings with the workers on the ground and during visits from donors; you have an operational role monitoring the implementation of projects and; you ensure that security levels are maintained and follow up logistics around the implementation of activities in the camps. My job in Batouri covered four refugee camps in East Cameroon: Lolo, Mbilé, Timangolo et Ngarsingo. These camps were created during the 2014 crisis and host refugees from the Central African Republic. Two things were central to my mission: managing the camps, including co-ordinating with other organisations and managing the security of the different sites. As the aim was for the camps to operate on a permanent basis, we needed to have teams continuously in the camps.   A permanent presence there means that the refugees have someone to call on when there’s a problem. It’s then up to us to work with the other organisations to respond to the needs of the refugees. The protection and security management of the camps is done in co-ordination with the UN High Commission for Refugees, other partners, the local population and the refugees themselves. Each camp has their own dedicated site manager. I was in constant touch with the site managers, particularly about security issues. As an emergency technical advisor, you are on call 24/7 and are continually updated on what is happening on the ground.

Then, there is the part of job that deals with building shelters. At the beginning of the crisis, refugees were housed in communal hangars. Then, gradually, they were moved into more and more durable shelters, better able to withstand the inclement weather conditions in the eastern region of Cameroon; the rainy season, in particular, can quickly damage shelters. Première Urgence Internationale prioritises helping the most vulnerable people in camp to construct durable shelters, under Première Urgence Internationale’s supervision.  The object of the exercise is to involve the refugees in building their own shelters, thereby allowing their needs to be better addressed.

The aid given to refugees is supposed to be temporary: how does that actually play out on the ground?

At the beginning of the crisis, emergency aid was called for. Since then, we are in a transition period where we are moving towards the refugees becoming self-supporting and/or the return of refugees to their homeland. We help them by putting in place certain rules. For example, internal procedures, a code of conduct and defining the roles and responsibilities of each person. In particular, we organised an election so the refugees themselves decided who would serve on several committees representing young people, women, elders etc. We then supported the elected committee members in improving their skills, to ensure they were able to discuss issues and also take action, allowing them to participate independently in the daily running of the camps.  Also, we train refugees in how to build durable or semi-durable shelters. Again, the aim is for them to be more autonomous and less dependent on humanitarian aid. This training will also be useful to them in the context of their eventual return to the Central African Republic.

This was your first mission in Africa, what struck you in particular?

All my previous missions were in the Middle East. In Africa, the context and the needs are completely different and so is the management of the teams. However, the beneficiaries are still people in a vulnerable situation, fleeing conflicts. Wherever I am, I am still motivated by the same humanitarian principle – the wish to understand what has happened to someone and to find the most appropriate form of help for their needs. When you arrive in a new mission you must listen to the beneficiaries to understand their needs and sometimes deliberately forget the way you have learned to do things on other missions. I found this mission very enriching, both personally and professionally.

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