Top UNHCR official in Sudan to review operations
EL GENEINA, Sudan, November 8 (UNHCR) - Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees L. Craig Johnstone arrived in West Darfur on Thursday as part of a four-day mission to Sudan to review the refugee agency's operations for refugees and internally displaced persons.
Earlier in Khartoum, he discussed with senior Sudanese officials the case of the attempted removal of 103 children from Chad to France by an NGO and roundly condemned the action, saying it was against humanitarian principles and international norms.
Johnstone, in a meeting with Sudan's Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Hassabo Mohamed Abdel Rahman, discussed UNHCR's role in helping the Chadian authorities identify the children and trace their families. He firmly rejected allegations of any UN involvement in the attempted illegal movement to France.
After the meeting Johnstone and Abdel Rahman told media they hoped a thorough investigation into the attempt to remove the children from Chad would bring to light the full facts of this disturbing incident. They also expressed the hope that the children could be promptly reunified with their families.
"We do need to get to the bottom of this story and understand the full scope of this group's activities. But we cannot afford to lose the real focus of the work of the humanitarian community - helping very needy refugees and internally displaced people in the region," Johnstone said.
The Deputy High Commissioner said it could be expected that for a certain time there could be a negative reaction to the behaviour of the French NGO. "But, one bad actor should not affect the ability of humanitarian organizations to carry out their work - that would be the real tragedy," he said.
In Chad, UNHCR cares for some 240,000 refugees from Darfur in 12 camps in the east of the country. It also provides assistance to some of the 180,000 Chadians internally displaced by conflict and insecurity. In neighbouring West Darfur, in a difficult security environment, UNHCR concentrates on providing protection assistance to more than 700,000 internally displaced people (IDPs).
After meetings with government officials in Khartoum, Johnstone said he was cautiously optimistic that UNHCR could, in the near future, extend its activities into north and south Darfur.
"We have a 40-year history of working with Sudan on refugee issues. In the past there's been some reluctance on the issue of UNHCR's involvement with internally displaced people. But, we seemed to have crossed that hurdle and now UNHCR is seen as the agency of IDPs," Johnstone said.
He added that there were no concrete dates set for increasing the geographical extent of UNHCR's involvement with IDPs in Darfur and that a couple more meetings with Sudanese officials were needed.
In West Darfur, Johnstone plans to visit IDP settlements to get a first-hand understanding of their situation and the challenges UNHCR faces in providing assistance in a difficult security environment.
By Jennifer Pagonis in El Geneina, Sudan