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UNHCR to expand protection and return work in West Darfur

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UNHCR to expand protection and return work in West Darfur

21 October 2004

21 October 2004

GENEVA - The U.N. refugee agency today announced it will step up its operational activities in Sudan's strife-torn West Darfur region as part of a collaborative United Nations effort to provide protection and assistance to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and refugees.

Acting on authorisation from Secretary-General Kofi Annan, High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers said UNHCR would work closely with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in providing a more protective international presence in West Darfur and in preparing for the eventual voluntary return of internally displaced people and refugees.

There are an estimated 500,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in West Darfur, one of three states that make up the war-torn Darfur region of western Sudan. Altogether, there are an estimated 1.5 million IDPs in all three states. Many of the IDPs in West Darfur say they will flee to neighbouring Chad if they don't get the help and protection they need in Sudan. Nearly 200,000 Sudanese refugees - mostly from West Darfur - have already fled across the border to Chad, where they are housed in 11 camps overseen by UNHCR and its partners. Their presence has placed enormous strains on Chad and led to growing animosity between the local population and the refugees. Further complicating the situation in West Darfur is the presence of more than 3,000 Chadian refugees for whom UNHCR is working to find a solution.

Lubbers said the current displacement crisis along the Sudan-Chad frontier is extremely complex and requires a coordinated approach on both sides of the border to try to stabilize the situation.

"Chad is already struggling to cope with the huge influx of refugees from Darfur and is facing the prospect of even more arrivals if the violence and related humanitarian crisis are not brought under control on the other side," he said. "Among the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people in West Darfur are some who had previously been to Chad and had gone back to Darfur in hopes of returning to their homes. So far, they have been unable to go back to their villages and are now once again poised to flee across the border for help. So we are dealing with a complicated mix of refugees, returnees and internally displaced people, often originating from the same villages of West Darfur and requiring similar solutions. This is why we believe UNHCR, with its mandate to find solutions for refugees, is best placed to address the issues of protection and ensuring voluntary return for all of these groups in West Darfur."

UNHCR, which has worked in Sudan for decades, already has a presence in Darfur, including a field office in the West Darfur city of El Geneina. UNHCR mobile protection teams are already at work along the border, visiting areas of internal displacement as well as mapping and assessing the condition of abandoned or destroyed villages. Lubbers said an increase in the agency's presence can help improve protection and security and possibly lessen the pressure on internally displaced people to flee to Chad.

Lubbers has also discussed UNHCR's expanded role in West Darfur with Mr. Jakob Kellenberger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The High Commissioner said UNHCR would closely coordinate with the ICRC, which has a presence throughout Darfur.

UNHCR's current budget for eastern Chad and Darfur totals $115 million through the end of this year. The agency will now reassess these needs in view of its expanded role in West Darfur under a revised operations plan now being drafted.

Although UNHCR's mandate specifically covers refugees who have crossed international borders, the agency also provides help and expertise in certain "refugee-like" situations involving internally displaced people who have been forced to flee their homes but remain in their countries. Often, as in Darfur, IDPs are caught up in the same conflicts and face the same problems as refugees. Security allowing and assuming it has the resources, UNHCR will become involved in such IDP situations at the behest of the Secretary-General or appropriate U.N. authority, and with the agreement of the government involved. At the beginning of this year, IDPs accounted for more than a quarter of the 17.1 million people considered "of concern" to UNHCR worldwide.

High Commissioner Lubbers, who visited both Chad and Darfur in late September, noted he had received requests from senior Sudanese officials for an active UNHCR presence in areas of IDP return. Such a presence would foster confidence among the IDP population and ensure the voluntary nature of any future returns. Lubbers said he had also discussed the collaborative approach with High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland, and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Sudan, Mr. Jan Pronk. All three welcomed UNHCR taking responsibility in West Darfur in the areas of protection and voluntary return, in close cooperation with SRSG Pronk and Arbour's office.