Chadian families are facing worsening food insecurity, becoming more indebted, and selling off personal possessions as they try to cope with the loss of remittances from relatives who have returned home from Libya.
Remittances, which half of the households in Chad's western and southwestern regions of Kanem and Bahr el Ghazal used to receive, are down by 57 percent, according to a survey by NGOs Oxfam and Action Against Hunger (ACF). Households on average were sent US$220 per month.
Most families in the two regions have reduced the number of meals they eat; 70 percent are eating less nutritious foods, while just under a third are resorting to wild foods such as leaves and berries.
One in five households interviewed had sold possessions to raise money; while most said they had taken out loans to get by.
At the same time, families are struggling to feed returning members: Some 43,000 migrants have returned in trucks from Libya to Chad over the past three months, according to Craig Murphy, operations officer at the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In Bahr el Ghazal family size has increased by as many as 13 people, according to the Oxfam/ACF survey.
"These people are going home to zones which already experience food insecurity even when there is no 'crisis', said Philippe Conraud, head of humanitarian operations at Oxfam in West Africa. "They need food, water - the basics, to get by."
People in the Sahel are chronically food insecure: In 2010 some 10 million people were at risk of hunger due to prolonged drought and poor harvests; almost one in five children were chronically malnourished, and 5 percent severely, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP).
A minority of families are looking to new income sources: begging, sending children out to work, travelling to other towns and cities in search of work, or harvesting their crops early, according to ACF and Oxfam.
Many returnees are determined to find any work they can. Seventeen-year-old Moussa,* who just returned home to Faya, the largest city in northern Chad, after working on a farm in Libya, told IOM he would try to find work in a salt mine now that he is home.
Agencies - including IOM, the World Health Organization (WHO), WFP, UNICEF, and NGOs including Oxfam and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) - have been helping provide returnees with food, medicine and water at transit centres and in major destination towns such as Faya. Nutritional support, which is urgently needed, will soon be put in place, said WHO programme coordinator Thomas Karengera.
Many migrants arrived with measles, leading IRC, WHO and UNICEF to launch vaccination campaigns for children aged six months to 15 years. A national measles vaccination campaign will soon be launched to contain the spread of the disease. As of 19 June some 5,311 people had contracted the disease across 20 of Chad's 22 regions since the beginning of the year, with 63 deaths thus far, according to Chad's Health Ministry.
"We are vaccinating children as soon as they arrive at transit centres, so the disease should not spread further," Felix Léger, IRC Chad country director, told IRIN. Many migrants are arriving run-down, malnourished and dehydrated, he said, increasing their receptiveness to the disease.
Oxfam is considering cash distributions to vulnerable families but first needs to ascertain if traders have enough capacity to supply the markets.
Cash in fragile markets will not work. "We don't want to be in a situation where cash distributions cause prices to rise, so those without cash cannot afford the high prices. That could have a harmful impact," Conraud told IRIN. Only 46 percent of traders in Kanem and Bahr el Ghazal had over two months of stocks, according to their research.
Prices of some basic foods have risen: In Kanem's capital, Mao, imported wheat was 43 percent higher in April 2011 compared to April 2010; peanut oil was up by 44 percent, and rice 6 percent; millet prices had dropped.
It is still unclear how many Chadians are likely to return from Libya said IOM's Murphy, who estimates tens of thousands remain. The number of arrivals has declined in recent weeks, "but this could just be a lull," he said.
Migrants who had recently arrived told IOM they are being driven out not only by ongoing fighting and instability but also the loss of employment and fear of being persecuted. Fighters from the Sahel were reportedly hired early on to support Col Gaddafi, leading to fears among migrants that they will be targeted.
Some migrants may plan to return to Libya as soon as fighting stops, said Murphy. This may be the reason why migrants were left stranded on the road by trucks in Zourake near the Niger border, he said.
Donors and aid agencies need to step up, warned Conraud. "If more migrants need to leave Libya, and arrive in the vulnerable Sahelian zone, then households' ability to get by will be seriously compromised. Very few actors from the international community are aware of this situation; everyone is looking at the Libyan side of the border, but more need to look at the Mali, Niger and Chad sides," he said.