By Eric Reeves
There are more than 20 million refugees worldwide—and half of them are children. Moreover, according to the UN High Commission for refugees, 86 percent of these refuges are in “countries considered economically less developed.” But international attention has focused disproportionately on the plight of those from the historical Levant, who continue to turn up in various wealthy European countries that have the power to shape international news and perceptions.
Constant attention to the plight of Syrians, Iraqis and others has also made it easy to overlook the often more threatening circumstances of roughly 40 million people internally displaced in their own countries—most of which are not in the Levant. Narrowly focused international attention has also made it easier for Europeans to conclude expedient deals with regimes like the one in Khartoum, which recently received a commitment of more than €150 million, notionally to stem the growing tide of Africans traveling from Sudan northwards. There is little evidence, however, that the EU much cares that most of this money will line the pockets of the kleptocracy that is the ruling National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime in Khartoum. If only some the money partially stanches the refugee flow, it will be considered a good “investment.”
To be sure, other rich nations have just been as expedient in preventing refugees from entering. The U.S. uses an impossibly long and cumbersome process to scrutinize Syrians and others. Japan turns down 99 percent of all refugees and asylum applicants. But perhaps the largest problem is not with nations but with UN agencies. Nowhere is this more conspicuous than in the treatment of over 300,000 Sudanese refugees in eastern Chad, virtually all from Darfur—virtually all ethnically African. The twelve camps along the Darfur/Chad border have long been imperiled, by violence and humanitarian shortages. Yet their problems command no attention, and they are perhaps the most invisible large refugee population in the world.
The two UN agencies most culpable are both, it must be said, badly underfunded. The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) have faced increasing shortages of money for programs that have sustained Darfuri refugees and other refugees and internally displaced populations throughout Africa. They have raised their voices, typically to no avail. But they have also engaged in practices that betray their mandate in consequential ways, and these must be highlighted, including suspicious census preparations for both refugees in eastern Chad and IDPs in Darfur.
Both agencies are engaged in policies that amount finally to forced repatriation of Darfuri refugees to a country still in the midst of an extremely violent, finally genocidal counter-insurgency campaign by Khartoum. WFP has sharply cut food rations for Darfuri refugees since 2014 to the point where they now amount, on paper, to only about one third of the minimum adequate daily intake of 2,100 kilocalories per person. But according to one highly informed Darfuri expatriate who has travelled regularly to eastern Chad, even this overstates what actually reaches people. Food is expropriated by various means along the way, including by middlemen who take a significant portion of the allocated food. Beneficiaries must pay—with food—for the milling of grain. What reaches children is typically not enough to prevent chronic malnutrition (“stunting”), a chronic problem in Sudan and the Sahel. Many of the refugees have been in Chad since the beginning of the genocide in 2003. A child born in one of the refugee camps in 2004 may well be both uneducated and acutely malnourished.
According to local aid workers, UNHCR has told Darfuri refugees that the time has come for them to become self-reliant and either integrate into Chadian society or return to Darfur. For example, where limited education is provided, the Sudanese curriculum is no longer used: students have been forced to study the Chadian curriculum—in French, a language that few possess. Most consequentially, as UNHCR officials well know, returning to Darfur—given the extreme levels of violence—is impossible in most places. Indeed, massive insecurity is the only reason Darfuris remain in this desolate region, which cannot support both a huge refugee population and a local Chadian population. Darfuris have no wish to stay in Chad, or to “integrate” into Chadian society, as UNHCR is insisting. They want to return to their lands and homes. Still, UNHCR continues to push a program of “voluntary” repatriation, one that is adamantly rejected by Darfuris:
A delegation of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and a representative of the Chadian government, held a meeting with refugee leaders in the Djabal camp on Tuesday concerning the voluntary repatriation programme, as agreed between the UNHCR and the Sudanese and Chadian authorities in September.
“They told us that a Sudanese delegation will visit the camps in November to prepare for the return of the refugees,” El Zein Mohamed Ahmed, Radio Dabanga correspondent in eastern Chad reported. “The refugee elders and sheikhs asserted their categorical rejection of the voluntary repatriation programme while the situation in most parts of Darfur is still extremely unsafe and insecure,” he said. “They told them the refugees will not welcome any delegation from the Khartoum regime, which is the main cause of their suffering.” (Radio Dabanga, November 1, 2015)
Collusion between the repressive regime of Idriss Déby, the Khartoum regime of indicted génocidaire Omar al-Bashir, and UN agencies is an international disgrace. Refugees are defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention as people who are outside their country of origin “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted.” No survey of current realities among the African tribal populations of Darfur can possibly escape the conclusion that returning refugees would face intense “persecution,” including murder, rape, denial of humanitarian assistance, torture, and arbitrary incarceration.
For its part, the broader international community refuses to provide meaningful civilian protection in Darfur, settling instead for the ill-conceived and badly failing UN/African Union “hybrid” force—UNAMID. Intimidated by both Khartoum and ruthless Arab militias deployed by the regime since it took up its mandate in January 2008, UNAMID is impotent, frequently denied access to investigate atrocities, and rarely reports even massive civilian destruction. It cannot possibly protect returning refugees, and may soon be withdrawn by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Violence over the past four fighting seasons has accelerated to the point that it is now as destructive as during the early years of the genocide (2003 – 2005). Genocidal violence has been especially intense in North Darfur, to which a great many refugees would be returning.
The UN must make urgent, emergency distributions of food and other basic humanitarian supplies to Darfuri refugees and other distressed populations inside Darfur. Rich nations should ensure full funding of WFP, devise means for effective civilian protection. Violence in Darfur must be brought to and end, and those same EU countries willing to pay off Khartoum for short-term gains should instead impose the kind of tough economic and financial sanctions the U.S. has imposed. This would quickly make the Khartoum regime more tractable in negotiating a verifiable peace agreement for Darfur. Only an end to the fighting can make it safe for Darfuri refugees to return to the productive lives from which they were forced by a genocide now in its fourteenth year.
Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for the past seventeen years. He is author of Compromising with Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012 (September 2012)