What does the expulsion of UNHCR workers mean for those in Darfur?

Last week, on August 6th, the Sudanese government took yet another step to prevent humanitarian aid from reaching those who need it by expelling 20 humanitarian workers employed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). With only 37 UNHCR employees working in Darfur at the time, this expulsion has scaled down UNHCR operations in terms of workers by over 50%. This has specifically affected North Darfur since all of the workers who were based in the capital, El Fasher, have been forced out of the country. These actions have also occurred despite the UN’s applications for the appropriate permits. Reuters reports that UNHCR has not been given an explanation of why the applications for permit renewal were revoked.

The timing of this event could not be worse. It comes amid an extreme upsurge in violence since January, 2013, as well as the height of the rainy season. There is famine, water shortages, and rampant disease in camps throughout Sudan and in neighboring countries. The rainy season is particularly deadly because of it increases the spread of disease predominantly in IDP and refugee camps, and when coupled with a decrease in humanitarian workers spell disaster for those living in Darfur.

A few recent examples reveal just how dire the situation is. On August 12, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated 150,000 people are affected by flooding in Sudan. According to the same report about 26,000 houses have been destroyed or damaged. As recently as August 11, 874 houses collapsed due to rains and flooding in the Kalma IDP camp in South Darfur and killing 14 people.

Famine is rampant within IDP and refugee camps due to the rising prices of food and the scaling back of humanitarian operations due to the rapidly deteriorating security situation, which also affects the Sudanese people’s capacity to grow their own food. Food shortages are compounded due to the inability of farmers to plant and harvest crops. With a wide variety of security threats—including rebel groups, government sponsored militias, bandits, and tribes—the security situation makes it very dangerous for people to reach their farms. Those who choose to farm are often threatened with violence and forced to pay money to farm to militia groups. On June 21st, Radio Dabanga reported that 10 displaced women were beaten by pro-government militia for trying to farm in North Darfur. The women were whipped and their lives threatened. The militiamen reportedly attacked the women “‘because they keep farming and are no longer afraid of being whipped.’” Water shortages are also a problem. On August 13th, Radio Dabanga reported that 19,500 Sudanese refugees living in Djabal camp in Chad are in an “acute drinking water crisis.” With all of these concerns affecting the effectiveness of NGOs at work in Sudan, the government’s interference into humanitarian work is blatantly criminal and serves no other purpose than harming the people in desperate need of aid.

It is also extremely important to note how the lack of humanitarian assistance affects women in particular. International and national humanitarian organizations are responsible for many of the services that are of importance to women including medical and psychological treatment for victims or rape, training for midwives, and nutrition aid for pregnant and nursing mothers.

There has been a major lack of international response to Khartoum’s expulsion of UN workers. The Sudan Tribune reports that as of August 9th “The US administration was the only government to support UNHCR’s demands calling for the immediate renewal of work permits to its staffers providing humanitarian aid to displaced civilians on the ground.” The international community needs to condemn the actions of the Sudanese government which is acting in ways that directly harms its citizens. Although it may seem that the expulsion of only 20 aid workers is small in comparison to the many challenges Sudan is currently facing, it is important to note all what this small step reveals about the government. Khartoum has a long history of limiting NGO access to certain parts of the country; however, this action has gone so far as to remove even a UN presence from Darfur. UNCHR is one of the last humanitarian presences left in Darfur, and now it seems that they soon could be fully expelled from the area as well.