Since the Sudanese government’s expulsion of 13 international aid organizations from Darfur one month ago, the welfare of Darfur’s (in country) refugees has become even more precarious.

The aid groups were expelled from Sudan in early March in response to an arrest warrant issued for Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, Al-Bashir refuses to recognize the court’s jurisdiction and continues to rule with impunity.

Humanitarian crisis looming

The Darfur refugees are exhausting the stores of food, clean water, and supplies remaining after the exodus of the aid organizations in March. This is prompting concerns for an imminent humanitarian crisis in the region.

Death from disease and starvation is a real spectre for millions of Darfurians reliant on external aid. The mass expulsion of aid workers has interrupted vital nutrition and hygiene programs, midwife training projects, and support for rape victims.

The World Food Programme, 1 of the 13 organizations expelled, reports its capacity to feed 2.8 million Darfurians is down by one third. Other expelled agencies include Oxfam, Care, Save the Children and Medecins Sans Frontieres.

International reaction

U.S. President Barack Obama sent a special envoy to Sudan last week to evaluate the situation and to urge the return of the expelled aid groups. President Obama said, “We have to figure out a mechanism to get those NGOs back in place, to reverse that decision, or to find some mechanism whereby we avert an enormous humanitarian crisis.” Human rights organizations like Amnesty International have also called on the Sudanese authorities to reverse the expulsion order.

The international pressure has only prompted Sudanese officials to reaffirm their expulsion order. The Sudanese government proposes to transfer responsibility for the refugees of Darfur to local, government-controlled aid agencies. However, with an annual aid budget of only $1 million, Sudan will be hard pressed to deliver services on the scale previously possible with $1 billion in foreign aid annually.

A region at war

For the past six years, the impoverished Darfur region of western Sudan has been host to a violent conflict between government forces, largely Arab troops, and non-Arab rebel groups. Though the conflict has historical roots stemming from the Arabs’ traditional control of the Sudanese government, the current crisis erupted in February 2003 when two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), attacked government garrisons. The government retaliated through the Janjaweed—the horse and camel mounted militia who are ravaging Darfur villages and nearby refugee camps. Despite official denials, international observers largely concur that the Sudanese government is backing the Janjaweed.

Since the conflict erupted in 2003, the United Nations estimates that up to 300,000 people have been killed. The Sudanese government maintains that around 10,000 people have died. The United States and various human rights organizations have accused the Sudanese government of genocide in Darfur.

Women of Darfur most at risk

Women and children, who represent the majority of the Darfur refugees, will be the most affected by a humanitarian crisis.

Aid initiatives in Sudan have traditionally targeted women, the usual caregivers in refugee camps. As aid-sponsored health facilities shut down, the women of Darfur will have few alternatives for medical care for themselves and their families. There is growing concern among aid groups that the women will turn to “baladi,” a traditional healing practice employing herbs and magic.

An added concern is the increased risk of sexual violence against women in the absence of protection afforded by aid groups. The international community has condemned the Janjaweed for using rape as a weapon of war in Darfur. The Sudanese government denies all systematic rape or violence against women in the region.

In addition to the threats of rape, disease, and starvation, aid workers are fearful that Darfur refugees may disperse into neighbouring Chad.

Need for immediate action

In the wake of the expulsion of the 13 aid groups, the United Nations and remaining organizations are scrambling to compensate for diminished resources and manpower. Current priorities are the transfer of food and water to refugee camps. Despite the efforts of remaining aid workers, the people of the region face a bleak future unless the Sudanese government relents and allows the expelled aid organizations back into Darfur.