A week after the Sudanese government kicked out thirteen international NGOs from the Darfur region of Sudan, it now insists that it can “fill the aid gaps.” While the government of Sudan spews vitriol about how these NGOs were ‘thieves’ and ‘neo-colonialists’, the situation is quickly becoming precarious for over 1 million internally displaced persons, or IDPs. Aid workers have warned that within a few weeks, IDP camps could reach a crisis point.
This appears to be part of a government attempt to force IDPs from camps. Forced return of IDPs stands in direct opposition to the concept of voluntary return, which is enshrined in Article 28 of the UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The Sudanese government is not disbanding the IDP camps, but instead is working to make life within the camps intolerable so that IDPs will be forced to leave.
Politicizing displaced people is not a new phenomenon. And if history is our guide, the politicization of aid in humanitarian circumstances can have devastating humanitarian consequences. Here are some examples of times when forced return has caused immense suffering for refugees and IDPs:
- Eastern Zaire: In the wake of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, more than a million Rwandan Hutus, many of whom had participated in the violence, fled to Eastern Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). These refugees were housed near the Rwandan border in camps where aid agencies provided food and medical attention. Aid groups soon realized that in addition to helping innocent women and children, they were also assisting Rwandan Hutu men who had participated in the genocide of 500,000 Rwandan Tutsis. These men used the camps to organize and launch attacks in Rwanda following the ascension of a Tutsi-led government, spurred violence that killed 4000 refugees within the camps, and sabotaged reconstruction and reconciliation efforts within Rwanda. Aid organizations were faced with moral quandaries: Should they help all refugees regardless of whether they were militarized or should they leave the camps because they were becoming sanctuaries for the genocidal regime? The International Rescue Committee and Doctors without Borders withdrew in early 1995. In the Eastern Zaire case, civilians were terrorized with violence within the camps and eventually forced to return to Rwanda. Thousands died in the process. Furthermore, the presence of militarized Rwandan Hutu refugees created a rebellion movement that began targeting Congolese Tutsis over a decade ago and continues today.
- Kenya: Following the Kenyan general election in December 2007, violence erupted between two ethnic groups—the Luo and the Kikuyu tribes. About 250,000 Kenyans were internally displaced as a result of the violence, and 100,000 people remained in IDP camps in May 2008 when the government began shutting down camps and forcing internally displaced Kenyans to return home. However, many problems ensued for these IDPs: They returned home to find no shelter and no food, so they either returned to the camps or set up informal IDP camps closer to home. Forcing IDPs home did not solve the underlying issues that were at the heart of the matter: unequal land ownership, corruption, and land rights disputes.
- South Sudan: The civil war that raged between North and South Sudan from 1983 to 2005 was characterized by mass population displacements as a strategy for the conduct of war. South Sudanese people fled from the Bahr el Ghazal region where they were victims of violence and famine to Khartoum. However, in 1990, the Sudanese government forced some 60,000 people, mostly from the Dinka tribe back to Bahr el Ghazal. Two years earlier, the region had been struck by a massive famine, meaning that these IDPs were forced to return to an area where they could not feed themselves or their families. Finally, because this region was controlled by the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the Sudanese government prevented the International Red Cross and the United Nations from providing essential food and medical aid. The famine in Bahr el Ghazal resulted in 250,000 deaths.
The scale of recent Sudanese government action toward international NGOs is unprecedented. (The U.N. humanitarian agency created this detailed map that illustrates the impact of the NGO expulsion.) Without NGOs providing life-saving provisions, the situation in Darfuri IDP camps will likely become catastrophic. Forcing IDPs to leave camps will not solve problems, but create new ones.