Too early for returns to Darfur; timeline uncertain, says High Commissioner
GENEVA, Oct 5 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers today told the agency's governing Executive Committee at its annual meeting in Geneva that it is too early to talk about returns to Darfur, and that the timeline for repatriation remains uncertain.
"On return, we need to talk about it as an objective, but it is too early to talk of return as if conditions already permit it," said the High Commissioner.
"There is a divergence of opinions on what will happen," he added. "As an optimist, I told refugees during my visit to Chad that I hope by next Ramadan you will be back home. But others say this is not realistic and we must prepare to help refugees in camps for years. I simply do not know. We cannot give any guarantees. It all has to do with the situation in Darfur."
Lubbers last week wrapped up a five-day trip to Sudan and Chad. He described a complex situation on the ground in western Sudan's Darfur region, where developments are not always clear to everyone involved. On a general level, he pointed to some improvements, including humanitarian access and the establishment of the ceasefire.
"There is no longer massive, systematic violence," the High Commissioner said. "You do not have the impression that a war is going on. However, our impression was that the ceasefire is not totally respected."
In addition to ceasefire violations, Lubbers talked of incidents of violence toward people who have already suffered enormously. "They are traumatised. So when there are incidents, they very quickly interpret them as indications that the killing is starting again."
Lubbers outlined the agency's efforts to protect internally displaced people in Darfur and build trust and confidence among the victims of the conflict. He described the efforts of UNHCR's mobile teams in the field, together with other agencies, to improve the situation. One key part of this is simply to be there with the displaced people. "People feel more protected by our presence," he said.
He also noted UNHCR's efforts to work with the authorities to improve the response to incidents of rape. One suggestion would involve teams of female police officers or civilian specialists working in support of the police to handle such reports. UNHCR is also working to help internally displaced people to organise themselves and set up their own structures and leadership, particularly among women.
Lubbers stressed that these efforts complement the work of other agencies, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and monitors from the African Union.
"A substantial if not a massive presence of the African Union is key - not only to monitor the ceasefire, but to create a situation so that after there is peace, people can return and trust will be there," he said.
Across the border in Chad, where some 200,000 refugees from Darfur have fled, the High Commissioner described the improving quality of life for refugees in 10 camps set up by UNHCR. However, he noted that "at the same time, we are registering an increase in tension with the local population."
The tensions result in part from the real constraint of limited local resources such as water and especially firewood, and in part due to perceptions among the local population who see large levels of assistance being provided to the refugees and not to local communities. Lubbers noted that the UN system has become more active in addressing this problem and has recently conducted a mission to interview local populations, find out what their worries are, and investigate how to better help them.
At the same time, improvements are needed in security and maintaining the civilian nature of the camps, which are being addressed through an agreement with the Chadian government to deploy gendarmes. More serious efforts are needed as well on registration to have a better picture of who is in the camps, which will also be useful in the longer term when return is possible. However, Lubbers cautioned, "in our opinion, this is not yet the case."
In his presentation, the High Commissioner also highlighted other refugee situations in Sudan and Chad beyond the crisis in Darfur. In the east of Sudan, where a repatriation operation has already brought home 120,000 Eritrean refugees, with 35,000 more slated for return by year's end, UNHCR is rehabilitating camps that have now closed. At the same time, the agency is working to increase the space for local integration of some refugees who do not want to return, while continuing with the ongoing repatriation.
In southern Sudan, UNHCR is expanding its presence to prepare for the eventual return of up to 500,000 refugees after a peace deal is finalised. In addition, thousands of Chadian refugees remain in Sudan, having fled in the 1980s. Meanwhile, in Chad, in addition to 200,000 refugees from Darfur, some 33,000 refugees from the Central African Republic are being cared for in camps in the south of the country.