U.N. refugee agency to boost its work in West Darfur
GENEVA, Oct. 21 (UNHCR) - UNHCR is expanding its activities in Sudan's strife-torn West Darfur region as part of a collaborative United Nations effort to provide more protection and assistance to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and refugees.
Following authorisation from Secretary-General Kofi Annan, High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers said Thursday that UNHCR was boosting its presence in West Darfur in a bid to strengthen protection and security among an estimated 500,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) and to eventually help them go home. 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).
West Darfur is 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 the three states - half a million of them in West Darfur. 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 with the local host population.
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.
The High Commissioner described the current displacement crisis along the Sudan-Chad frontier as extremely complex, requiring 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."
Although UNHCR's mandate specifically covers refugees - those 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. Currently, internally displaced people account for more than a quarter of the 17.1 million people considered "of concern" to UNHCR worldwide.
UNHCR has worked in Sudan for decades and already has a presence in all three Darfur states, including a field office in the West Darfur city of El Geneina. UNHCR mobile protection teams are now working along the Sudan-Chad 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.
On Thursday morning, Lubbers met with Mr. Jakob Kellenberger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, to discuss UNHCR's expanded role in West Darfur. The High Commissioner said UNHCR would closely coordinate its work 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.
During a visit to Chad and Darfur in late September, Lubbers received requests from senior Sudanese officials for a more active UNHCR presence to help foster confidence among the displaced and ensure the voluntary nature of any future returns. Lubbers 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.