SUDAN: Urgent political action needed to stem Darfur crisis - Concern Worldwide
NAIROBI, 26 January 2007 (IRIN) - The humanitarian crisis in the western Sudanese region of Darfur will deteriorate this year unless key political decisions involving the government, the Darfurian rebel groups and the international community are urgently taken, an international nongovernmental organisation working in the war-torn region warned on Friday.
"Unless there is increased recognition, within Sudan and internationally, of the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, we will be faced with a huge, long-term human tragedy," Tom Arnold, Chief Executive of a key international NGO, Concern Worldwide, said. "The only way to prevent this is for urgent political action to improve security in the short term and to start a meaningful longer-term peace process."
Such action would require a meaningful peace process between the Sudanese government and the non-signatories to the Darfur Peace Agreement. Adherence by all sides to the recently announced 60-day ceasefire and the early deployment of the proposed African Union/United Nations hybrid force to increase security and improve the protection of the civilian population would be important first steps.
"I left Darfur with a real sense of pessimism that there is little prospect of improvement in the short term," Arnold, who had just returned from his third visit to Darfur, said in an interview with IRIN in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. "Unless there is serious willingness to engage in the political process, it can only get worse and create conditions for disaster in the long run."
Displaced people in Darfur, he explained, had told him they were afraid to leave the camps, because of militia attacks. "My overall impression was of a growing sense of hopelessness," he explained. "One local leader said they were living in an open prison. I met no-one who said they were willing to return to their villages without a major improvement in security."
The situation had made it increasingly difficult for humanitarian workers to help vulnerable populations. Concern International, which targets 250,000 people in the region, had found it difficult to deliver aid overland to Kulbus or Solei in West Darfur and to civilians in Mornai camp south of El Geneina because of the fragile security along the roads. Mornai, which hosts 80,000-90,000 people, is the biggest in West Darfur.
"We can only access these places by helicopter - which introduces a major constraint in our effectiveness," Arnold said. "You cannot bring cement or 18,000 blankets by helicopter. The lack of security is having a direct knock-on effect on our operations."
Calling for dialogue between the Sudanese government and rebel groups, alongside international pressure, Arnold said: "If you could get some kind of reduction in violence that could provide some opportunity. A large onus rests with the Sudanese government, but even if they wanted an agreement, they can’t make it on their own. There are two sides to every conflict."
He hailed aid workers for doing a good job in the region, but added: "The crisis in Darfur is a much wider one. Too many people have been in camps now for between two and three years. In the past six months, an extra quarter of a million people have been displaced. When you add all this together, the situation is definitely getting worse."
Aid workers, he acknowledged, were facing an increasingly risky working environment: "Quite clearly the statistics are there. Since July, 12 aid workers have been killed, five are missing. The growing insecurity means it is more difficult for aid agencies to access the population."
According to the UN, violence in Darfur is increasingly targeting aid workers. Over the past six months, 30 NGO and UN compounds were attacked by armed groups while more than 400 staff were relocated 31 times from different locations throughout Darfur. Last week, police officers attacked staff from the UN, the African Union Mission in Sudan and seven NGOs in South Darfur. The attack and subsequent arrests of some staff in the state capital of Nyala occurred while they were attending a social gathering.
"The increasingly worsening humanitarian situation had created a moral dilemma for aid workers," Arnold said. "Many of the people in the camps see the importance of a humanitarian presence as a form of protection for them. But the only way to square the moral pressure is to keep up the political pressure."
Photo: Derk Segaar/IRIN
|At least 200,000 people have been killed and two million others displaced in Darfur since 2003, when government and allied militia forces began fighting rebel groups seeking greater autonomy|
More than 200,000 people have been killed and at least two million others displaced from their homes in Darfur since 2003, when government forces and allied militias began fighting rebel groups seeking greater autonomy for the arid and impoverished region. In August 2006, the UN Security Council voted to send blue berets to bolster the AU peacekeeping mission there. But despite intense international pressure, Sudan has rejected a UN presence, saying it will only allow technical support personnel to be deployed to help the African force.
Arnold said the possibility of expanding the international peacekeeping operation would take time, even if the Sudanese authorities allowed an immediate deployment of a UN force: "I am not certain how quickly this could be translated into action. There might be a sense of improvement because the people are getting more food, but the underlying problems are not improving."
Concern has been working in the region since 2004 in camp management; provision of water and sanitation, nutrition and health services; promotion of livelihoods and the provision of shelter and household items. "In May 2005, there was a fair degree of optimism. Then the situation deteriorated," Arnold added. "If the camp situation was to remain permanent, it would represent a major change in Darfur. The reality is most people want to go home, but they won’t go unless there is an improvement in the situation."