Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey has visited a refugee camp in Chad as part of her ten-day official trip to sub-Saharan Africa.
Switzerland contributes SFr3-4 million ($2.5-3.3 million) a year to the camps, which hold around 380,000 refugees and people displaced by various conflicts, including the one in neighbouring Darfur.
On Sunday Calmy-Rey visited the Iridimi camp, north of Abéché, Chad's fourth-largest city and the capital of Ouaddaï Region. More than 17,000 refugees from Darfur live in the camp, some having been there for more than four years.
Their survival depends entirely on international aid, and Calmy-Rey discussed with the Chadian authorities further means of helping those in the camps.
The conflict in Darfur, a region of western Sudan, began in 2003 after rebel groups accused the Sudanese government of neglect. According to the United Nations, more than two million people have fled their homes and at least 200,000 have died.
A peace deal was negotiated in 2006 with little impact. The African Union deployed 7,000 soldiers to try to monitor a ceasefire, but their presence has failed to stop fighting.
Of the refugees from Darfur, some 230,000 fled to Chad and are living in the dozen camps along the border. These camps also hold around 150,000 Chadians who were chased from their villages during the fighting between militia forces and government troops.
This massive influx has greatly destabilised the local population, which is also struggling to survive.
The lack of water is particularly serious. "At the moment individuals are limited to eight litres a day," said Djerassem Mbaiorem from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Given the region's high temperatures, a critical threshold could soon be reached.
Another cause for concern is the persistant violence outside the camps. "When the first refugees arrived, villagers shared their meagre resources," Mbaiorem said. "Since then, even the locals are struggling to exist."
Global warming and the consequent desertification is generating tension and violence over access to water, firewood and land for grazing – and that on top of pre-existing ethnic rivalries.
The regional situation figured largely in Calmy-Rey's working lunch on Saturday with Chadian Prime Minister Delwa Kassiré Koumakoye and several members of his government.
Calmy-Rey, who was accompanied by Walter Fust, head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, was told by her hosts that Swiss aid to Chad was "greatly appreciated". Ways of improving it was part of talks with the Chadian minister for infrastructure.
The Swiss aid programme to Chad, which is worth a total of SFr11 million a year, focuses on supporting rural communities – 80 per cent of the population – and in particular the development of agriculture, health and education.
Calmy-Rey is set to meet the president of Chad, Idriss Déby, on Monday.
swissinfo with agencies
Micheline Calmy-Rey conducted official working visits to Benin on July 9 and Ghana on July 10.
After the Regional Conference for Swiss Ambassadors in Sub-Saharan Africa, which took place from July 11-13 in Dakar, Senegal, she visited Chad from July 14-15.
The tour will continue to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda.
Sudan is Africa's largest nation and one of its most diverse countries. The region of Darfur alone is larger than France.
The 21-year conflict between mainly Muslim north and the Christian and Animist south ended in 2005, with an autonomous government in the south.
An estimated 1.5 million people died in this conflict, in which southern rebels said they were battling oppression and marginalisation.
The Darfur conflict broke out as the north and south were edging towards peace. The southern Sudanese authorities have now invited Darfur rebels and the Sudanese government for talks.
In compliance with the JTI standards