Norwegian Refugee Council pulls out of Darfur

/ Source: The Associated Press

A Norwegian refugee group said Friday it is closing down its humanitarian operations for nearly 300,000 people in Darfur because it is impossible to work in the troubled Sudanese region.

The Norwegian Refugee Council cited “frequent disruption” of its work, saying it had been suspended five times for a total of 210 days since it started operations in mid-2004.

“We cannot work when the authorities suspend us continuously and do not respond to our repeated requests for dialogue aimed at addressing and resolving underlying reasons for this action,” said NRC Secretary-General Tomas C. Archer.

Fighting since Darfur rebels launched an uprising in 2003 has left more than 200,000 people dead and 2.5 million displaced.

Aid agencies have repeatedly complained about government interference in their work in Sudan. For months after the conflict broke out, Sudanese officials severely limited international aid organizations’ access to Darfur. Humanitarian workers were only allowed in after protracted negotiations and international pressure.

Last year, Sudan briefly detained two officials of Medecins Sans Frontieres after the Dutch branch of the international medical aid group released a report that quoting hundreds of rape victims in Darfur identifying their attackers as soldiers or members of government-allied militia.

Rebels also have been accused of interfering with aid, in some cases by kidnapping aid workers.

'300,000 people on their own'
The Norwegian group said it was pulling out 12 international staff and 170 local staff running one camp for 128,000 people in southern Darfur camp and another for 100,000 people.

“We coordinated all aid, the fair distribution of food, medical care. Now there are 300,000 people on their own. That’s what concerns us most,” said group spokeswoman Astrid Sehl by telephone. She said they also had to shut down an educational program from about 19,000 children, and stop distributing food to about 52,000 people outside the camps.

“This decision has been the most difficult I have had to make as secretary-general of NRC,” Archer said. “We are all aware that the humanitarian needs are greater than ever in south Darfur.”

A news release said the Oslo-based group had been promised an answer from Sudanese authorities on the future of its humanitarian effort in Darfur, but no answer had been given.

“We report on abuses and attacks at the camps, which is apparently not very popular (with the government), Sehl said. “We wanted a dialogue but there has been no response.”

At a minimum, the aid group would require government guarantees that they would be allowed access to the refugees without the constant disruptions and suspensions before it could consider returning to Darfur, she said.

The Norwegian Refugee Council is a private, independent foundation without religious or political affiliations. It was found in 1946 to assist post-World War II refugees, and now has about 1,300 staff working in 20 countries worldwide.