Oxfam pulls out of largest Darfur refugee camp, citing attacks on aid workers

International aid agency Oxfam has announced it is pulling out of Gereida, the largest camp in Darfur, where more than 130,000 have sought refuge. The agency cited inaction by local authorities from the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), which controls the region, in addressing security convers and violence against aid workers. Oxfam urged the international community to do more to pressure all parties to the Darfur conflict to end attacks on civilians and aid workers.

Caroline Nursey, Oxfam's Sudan program manager, said in a statement: "The humanitarian need in Gereida remains enormous, and we have been extremely keen to return. It is with great regret that our security concerns have not been addressed, leaving us with no choice but to relocate our programs elsewhere. Since the attack, we have repeatedly stressed our desire to return to the town. But the local authorities have not lived up to their responsibility to ensure our staff can work safely. Despite our repeated requests, none of the perpetrators have been held to account, none of the assets stolen in the attack have been returned, and we have not received credible assurances that similar attacks would not take place if we did return."

Gereida is under the control of the Minni Minnawi faction of the SLM, a signatory to the Darfur Peace Agreement of May 2006. Since the signing of that agreement the situation in Darfur has deteriorated significantly, Oxfam says.

"Without action and assurances from those in control, we cannot operate in areas that have proven to be so extremely unsafe for our staff," said Nursey. "The international community needs to ensure that parties to the conflict in Darfur take their responsibilities under international humanitarian law seriously."

Oxfam has reached an agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), under which the agency will take over maintenance of water and sanitation services on a long-term basis. However, Oxfam's health education and development work in Gereida will cease in the coming weeks. This work has helped prevent the spread of disease in the camp, and provided opportunities for people to improve their livelihoods and reduce their dependency on aid.

"As usual in Darfur, the people who will suffer most are the civilians who have already been attacked, forced from their homes and had their lives thrown into turmoil," added Nursey.

Oxfam cited a lack of progress towards accountability following a Dec. 18, 2006 armed men raid the compounds of Oxfam and Action Against Hunger/Action Contre La Faim, in which 12 vehicles were stolen, a female aid worker raped and an Oxfam staff member seriously beaten. Other aid workers were subjected to mock executions. Communications equipment and money were also taken. Oxfam staff were among 71 aid workers evacuated from the town as a result, causign the group to cut back operations.

Despite the withdrawal from Gereida, Oxfam is still assisting around 400,000 people affected by the Darfur crisis. But projects elsewhere in the conflicted region are now threatened as well, as attacks on aid workers have now become a daily occurrence in Darfur. (InfoZine, June 19)

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