International aid agency Oxfam today announced it will permanently phase out activities in Gereida, the largest camp in Darfur where more than 130,000 people have sought refuge from violence. The agency criticized the local SLM authorities' lack of action to improve security in the area and address violence against aid workers, in the six months since an unprecedented attack forced the evacuation of staff and suspension of humanitarian operations. Oxfam urged the international community to do more to pressure all parties to the conflict in Darfur to end attacks on civilians and aid workers.
"The humanitarian need in Gereida remains enormous, and we have been extremely keen to return. It is with great regret that our security concerns have not been addressed, leaving us with no choice but to relocate our programs elsewhere. Since the attack, we have repeatedly stressed our desire to return to the town. But the local authorities have not lived up to their responsibility to ensure our staff can work safely. Despite our repeated requests, none of the perpetrators have been held to account, none of the assets stolen in the attack have been returned, and we have not received credible assurances that similar attacks would not take place if we did return," said Caroline Nursey, Oxfam's Sudan Programme Manager.
Gereida is under the control of the Minni Minnawi faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), a signatory to the Darfur Peace Agreement in May 2006. Since the signing of that agreement the situation in Darfur has deteriorated significantly.
"Without action and assurances from those in control, we cannot operate in areas that have proven to be so extremely unsafe for our staff. The international community needs to ensure that parties to the conflict in Darfur take their responsibilities under international humanitarian law seriously," said Nursey.
Oxfam has reached an agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that it will take over maintenance of water and sanitation services on a long-term basis. However, Oxfam's important health education and livelihoods work in the town will cease after August. This work has helped prevent the spread of disease in the vast, crowded camp and also provided opportunities for people to improve their livelihoods and reduce their dependency on aid.
"As usual in Darfur, the people who will suffer most are the civilians who have already been attacked, forced from their homes and had their lives thrown into turmoil. For the last six months they have not had the level of assistance that they need," added Nursey.
The attack in Gereida on December 18th 2006 saw armed men raid the compounds of Oxfam and Action Against Hunger/Action Contre La Faim. 12 humanitarian vehicles were stolen, a female aid worker raped and an Oxfam staff member very badly beaten. Other aid workers were subjected to mock executions. Communications equipment and money were also taken. Oxfam staff were among 71 aid workers evacuated from the town as a result. Since then Oxfam has maintained some basic public health services through local staff in the town, but most operations have been suspended.
While the incident in Gereida was particularly serious, targeted attacks on aid workers have now become a daily occurrence in Darfur, gravely threatening the entire humanitarian response on which 4 million people depend. Aid agencies' ability to reach people in need has been greatly curtailed as a result.
Oxfam began working in Gereida in mid-2004 as people began to seek shelter there from attacks on villages in the surrounding area. In early 2006, work was scaled up considerably to respond to escalating violence, that in just four months more than tripled the population of the camp. Until mid-2006 Oxfam was one of only three agencies working in the town and provided tens of thousands of new arrivals with access to clean water, sanitation and other essential items such as blankets and shelter materials. By the time of the attack in December Oxfam was pumping 15 liters of water per person per day into the camp (more than 2 million liters in total) – compared to four liters per person per day just four months earlier.
Despite the withdrawal from Gereida, Oxfam is still assisting around 400,000 people affected by the Darfur-Chad crisis, by providing life-saving clean water, sanitation, health education and livelihoods work. It is now looking at new areas of South Darfur state in which to extend its work.