Humanitarian Agencies Warn Darfur Operations Approaching Breaking Point

By rbaker

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Aid agencies warned on January 28 that the enormous humanitarian response in Darfur will soon be paralyzed unless African and global leaders at the African Union summit take urgent action to end rising violence against civilians and aid workers. They said African heads of states and new UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will fail the people of Darfur if they do not take concrete steps to herald the start of a new chapter in the region and ensure that an immediate ceasefire is both agreed and adhered to.

The six agencies -- Action Against Hunger, CARE International, Oxfam International, Norwegian Refugee Council, World Vision, and Save the Children -- said aid workers are facing violence on a scale not seen before in Darfur, leaving access to people in need at the conflict's lowest point at a time when the humanitarian need is greater than ever. Attacks on civilians are again rising and forcing even more people to flee their homes, and a breakdown of the aid response will leave millions in even greater danger. The worsening four-year-old crisis must not be allowed to deteriorate any further.

"The conflict has dragged on far too long and is now worse than it's ever been," said Irũngũ Houghton, pan Africa policy advisor for Oxfam in Addis for the summit. "To wait any longer puts hundreds of thousands of lives in danger and risks a total breakdown of the entire humanitarian response. Today must be the time the African Union, the UN and the international community says enough is enough."

Fresh fighting in January has left more than 350 people dead, according to UN and Sudanese government figures, and forced tens of thousands more from their homes. Splits in the rebel movements and a widespread lack of accountability have left Darfur increasingly lawless, leading to the direct targeting of aid workers. The violence has spread throughout Darfur and crossed the border into Chad. Even major towns and cities are now plagued with violence and have seen fighting and hijackings on the streets.

More than a month after an attack on aid workers in Gereida -- the most violent of the conflict so far, which saw staff raped, beaten and subjected to mock executions -- it is still far too dangerous for agencies to return to the camp. The largest camp in the world for displaced people, 130,000 of them have sought refuge in Gereida from attacks on their villages. Temporary evacuations of staff from other locations across Darfur have continued, with nearly 500 aid workers withdrawn since the start of December. In early January, the UN warned that malnutrition rates are again rising close to emergency levels. Progress made in stabilizing conditions over the past four years is in serious danger of being reversed.

The six agencies warn the summit will fail unless:

  1. African heads of states led by Chairperson Denis Sassou Ng'uesso and Ban Ki-Moon greatly increase the pressure on all parties to the conflict to ensure attacks on civilians and aid workers end immediately, and ensure that perpetrators of violence are held to account.
  2. The African Union Commission does more to end the growing violent attacks. The AU's credibility with the people of Darfur is at an all-time low. AU troops in Darfur must immediately try to regain the civilian population's confidence by implementing the following proactive protection measures:
    • Regular "firewood patrols" accompanying women who collect essential firewood and animal fodder outside the camps. Although previously in place, these have now ceased in most locations in Darfur
    • A 24/7 presence inside the main camps and towns to ensure safety of civilians
    • Making more effective use of the Ceasefire Commission to bring violators to account

"The international community has failed the people of Darfur by not providing the AU force with the funds, equipment and support that it need," said Hussein Halane, Save the Children country director in Sudan. "But the AU can -- and must -- do more with the resources already at its disposal. There is no reason why firewood patrols cannot resume immediately."

Aid agencies working in Darfur have repeatedly called for the AU force to be strengthened, but despite two years of promises from the entire international community, the AU is now providing even less protection than before.

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