On Sunday, Oxfam International announced their intention to pull out of Gereida, the largest camp in Darfur and the home of 130 000 displaced people. This decision was made after increasing insecurity over the past year has endangered the lives of Oxfam staff.
In the last twelve months, the humanitarian activities of most of the aid agencies working in the Dafur region of Sudan have been dramatically curtailed. OCHA, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reported in March this year that the area accessed by humanitarian workers has been reduced by two thirds – the UN further stated that nearly a million people were effectively cut off from the aid they desperately need at any one time.
Aid workers are now regularly targeted. Almost every day, humanitarian vehicles are hijacked, workers assaulted and abducted, or equipment destroyed and stolen. Since the Darfur Peace Agreement of May 2006, 13 aid workers have been killed. Last December, we were forced to pull most of Oxfam staff out of the region’s largest camp, Gereida, sheltering 130,000 people, after a savage attack in which one of our workers was seriously assaulted. On Sunday, we announced that we will cease activity in this camp altogether.
Recently, Oxfam was also forced to temporarily suspend work in, Um Dukhun, another camp in West Darfur, after one of our vehicles was hijacked by armed men in the middle of the camp in broad daylight. As a result, vital assistance to 100,000 people was disrupted.
The level of violence puts the overall aid response on the brink of collapse, and this cannot be maintained indefinitely. And if aid agencies are left unable to operate in an area of such immense need, the potential humanitarian consequences are unthinkable.
The rapid deterioration over the past 12 months is the responsibility of all parties to the conflict. Only one rebel leader and the government signed the Dafur peace agreement last year, and since then the rebel movement has fragmented and there are now too many armed factions to count. The Sudan Liberation Movement have done little – if anything – to quell the violence and the attacks against aid workers. Banditry is rife, and carried out with almost complete impunity, and tribal conflict has escalated. The situation in Darfur has never been as simplistic as often portrayed, but it is now spiraling ever further into all-out chaos.
The recent announcement by the Sudanese government to unconditionally accept a combined African Union/UN peacekeeping force into the country is a welcome sign of hope and should be matched by peacekeeping forces from countries like Australia. The Australian government has shown leadership by providing significant funding for aid operations in Darfur and neighbouring Chad. As an international leader and a country with expertise in leading complex peacekeeping missions, Australia has a responsibility to help protect the civilian population of Darfur. Our obligation to protect victims of conflict extends beyond our borders.
If the international community does not support the UN’s call for peacekeeping support, then the work of agencies such as Oxfam will be further affected and the violence in Darfur will only continue to increase. The innocent men, women and children of Darfur deserve our help.
Published in Australian Financial Review on 20 June 2007.