Antonio Guterres: Our tenuous lifeline is under threat

We have warned for months that the violence in Darfur threatens to engulf the entire region
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The Independent Online

For the past three years, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has operated a dozen remote camps for hundreds of thousands of Darfur refugees scattered along a vast, 600km stretch of the Chad-Sudan border. The logistics of maintaining these isolated camps in one of the world's harshest and most desolate environments is difficult enough.

But now, as the violence in Darfur spills over into eastern Chad itself, the tenuous humanitarian lifeline we and our partners have struggled to maintain is under severe threat. This is endangering some 232,000 Darfurian refugees and more than 90,000 Chadians who have been driven from their homes over the past year by armed marauders using tactics identical to those of the notorious Janjaweed just across the border in Darfur. Further complicating this already complex and insecure operational environment is an ongoing armed rebellion against the Chadian government.

Today, I begin a two-day mission to Chad to see what more can be done to ensure that our vital aid lifeline continues to flow amid this increasing insecurity. Tens of thousands of lives depend on it.

We have warned for months that the violence in Darfur threatens to engulf the entire region. Over the past month alone, some 300 people in eastern Chad were killed in attacks on more than 70 villages, most of which were looted, burned and emptied. Last weekend, attacks on villages in the Koukou Angarana area close to UNHCR's Goz Amer refugee camp in south-eastern Chad left dozens of people dead, including local villagers, refugees and people already internally displaced in earlier fighting. In late November, UNHCR lost more than £500,000 in vital aid supplies looted from our main warehouse in the eastern town of Abeche following clashes between government and rebel forces.

All of this violence has forced UNHCR and other aid agencies working in the region to temporarily relocate non-essential staff from insecure areas, further weakening the humanitarian lifeline. Over the weekend, some 50 aid workers were temporarily relocated from Koukou Angarana because of the violence there. Currently, only skeleton crews are able to work in six of the 12 refugee camps in eastern Chad because of continuing insecurity.

While in Chad, I expect to meet President Idriss Deby and other senior government officials, as well as to travel to the strife-torn east to spend time with my staff, other humanitarian groups, refugees and displaced Chadians. All are struggling to cope with a growing humanitarian crisis in an increasingly difficult and dangerous environment and deserve all the support they can get.

UNHCR supports calls for the international community to mobilise a multi-dimensional presence in Chad to help protect Chadian civilians and Darfur refugees, as well as the aid workers trying to help them. This is essential. In August, UN Security Council Resolution 1706 called for such a UN presence in Chad and the neighbouring Central African Republic.

Last week, the UN Security Council expressed its deep concern at the worsening security situation in Sudan and the spillover into Chad and the Central African Republic. A council statement strongly condemned attempts by armed groups in eastern Chad to destabilise the country, calling them "blatant violations" of the African Union's principles. It also expressed concern that the increased military activity in Chad threatened civilians, humanitarian workers, and refugees from Darfur in UNHCR camps in eastern Chad, and called on the Chadian government "to do all it can to protect its civilian population".

The Security Council also noted it was awaiting recommendations from the UN Secretary-General on improving security in eastern Chad. Those recommendations are expected soon. I sincerely hope the Security Council decides on the rapid deployment of the kind of presence we need to protect refugee camps, displaced Chadians and UNHCR's humanitarian operations.

In today's world, we are seeing an increasing number of extremely complex security situations involving a combination of armed rebellion, inter-ethnic conflict, and general lawlessness and banditry. To address these challenges, the traditional concept of peacekeeping needs reflection and re-evaluation.

If lives are to be saved, international support for improved security and serious political efforts by all parties toward a solution are essential. Humanitarians working in such difficult and dangerous situations must not be left on their own as a substitute for the lack of any real effort toward a solution.

The writer, a former Prime Minister of Portugal, was appointed UN High Commissioner for Refugees in June 2005

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