x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Aid workers' expulsion a risk to life

Disease and shortages of food and water set to befall citizens after al Bashir's latest move.

People queue for measles vaccinations by Médecins Sans Frontières in Sudan.
People queue for measles vaccinations by Médecins Sans Frontières in Sudan.

NEW YORK // The expulsion of relief workers from Sudan's western province of Darfur could spawn outbreaks of killer diseases and see water supplies dry up within days, the UN's aid director says. Sir John Holmes said Darfur's humanitarian crisis was poised to deteriorate rapidly following the government's "unexpected" decision to throw out 13 foreign agencies that ran life-saving aid projects. The expulsion of aid workers by the Sudanese president, Omar al Bashir, is widely seen as a politically motivated response to an arrest warrant issued against him by the International Criminal Court (ICC), although this is denied by Khartoum. "This decision is likely to have a major impact on millions of people in Darfur who need a daily basis of life-saving humanitarian assistance," Sir John, the UN's undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, said on Monday. "Our major concerns are in the field of water, where water installations have been managed by international non-governmental organisations ? If they disappear, how is that job going to be taken up? It may not affect water delivery today, but it certainly will in a few days if the maintenance is not done and fuel is not provided." A spokesman for one of the aid groups forced to vacate Darfur said some tanks in Darfur's refugee camps "will only provide water for a week or 10 days" before supplies dry up and refuges are left thirsty. "After that, it is a question mark, and we are just trying to figure that out because we have no international staff remaining," the spokesman said. "The logisticians, the engineers and the co-ordinators of these operations have already left te country." Food stockpiles are expected to sustain Darfur's 4.7 million aid-dependent people over coming weeks. Additionally, the expulsion of foreign specialists could lead to outbreaks of meningitis in refugee camps, Sir John said. One of the targeted aid groups, Médecins Sans Frontières-Netherlands, had been responding to a meningitis outbreak by vaccinating people in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, when aid workers were ordered to leave. Sudanese officials told a dozen other aid groups and three charities last week that their operating licences had been revoked amid allegations they had collaborated with ICC prosecutors. The expelled groups include Oxfam GB, Care International, ­Médecins Sans Frontières, Mercy Corps and Save the Children. Mr al Bashir, who seized control of Africa's biggest country in a coup in 1989, has accused the UN and aid organisations of conspiring to destabilise his power base as part of a new "colonialism". Khartoum announced expulsions only hours after ICC judges issued a warrant for Mr al Bashir's arrest based on allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. About 300,000 people have been killed and at least 2.7 million forced from their homes since fighting erupted in 2003, with most of the displaced now holed up in refugee camps in the vast, arid region. In inhospitable terrain and tackling what has been dubbed "the world's worst humanitarian disaster", aid workers distribute sorghum and other staples and provide medical care, clean water and sanitation. Sudanese officials have confiscated aid workers' vehicles, mobile telephones and computers, and threatened the remaining staff by their "intimidating behaviour", the humanitarian chief said. Sudan's UN ambassador, Abdalmahmoud Abdalhaleem, said the government would have no problem filling in any gaps in aid distribution created by the expulsion of aid workers. But Mr Holmes said neither the Sudanese government nor the UN - nor Darfur's remaining aid groups - "have the capacity to replace all the activities that have been going on". Government allegations that charity workers provided witnesses and helped ICC prosecutors build their case were "far fetched and implausible", Mr Holmes said. A coalition of forces, including the Arab League and the African Union, has urged the Security Council to invoke an article of the ICC rules and delay proceedings against Mr al Bashir for one year. Critics say the court's first arrest warrant against a sitting head of state will deepen the Darfur crisis and destabilise a peace process between Khartoum and the country's Christian-dominated south. jreinl@thenational.ae