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PRESS CONFERENCE BY ASSISTANT SECRETARY-GENERAL FOR HUMANITARIAN AFFAIRS ON HUMANITARIAN SITUATION IN DARFUR

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

31 August 2007

The United Nations Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, Margareta Wahlström, told reporters on Friday that humanitarian needs in Darfur remain serious and widespread, with malnutrition on the rise. “This is the first time we have seen a deterioration”, since 2004 when a major relief effort began, said Ms. Wahlström. She noted that lawlessness, banditry and violence continue to hinder the efforts of the more than 12,000 aid workers now in Darfur attempting to assist some 4 million people.

“Every day, there is another report consistent with the pattern” of increased violence against aid workers, Ms. Wahlström told correspondents at a Headquarters press briefing on 31 August, prior to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s 3-6 September visit to the region.

She said the situation of relief workers in Darfur had been a major concern for about a year, not only because of the tensions fuelled by fighting between Government-backed militia and ethnic rebel clans -- now fighting among themselves -- but also because myriad administrative obstacles had previously been hampering the massive humanitarian response. The current trend “was not positive”, she said. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had noted an alarming 150 per cent increase in violent acts directed against aid workers in the last 12 months.

“Daily attacks, banditry, lawlessness and other violence affect aid workers just as they affect the people of Darfur,” she said, expressing the hope that, with increased international attention on Darfur, the rising threat to relief workers there could also be addressed.

The stepped up attacks against relief workers came as the humanitarian situation had become “more critical” during the past few months, Ms. Wahlström said. Violence was continuing and the large numbers of people fleeing the regions were telling, with some 55,000 newly displaced since mid-June -- and a quarter of a million displaced since the first of the year. That trend was expected to continue. Out of a total population of 6.4 million people in Darfur, 2.2 million people are now displaced and close to 4 million “are touched by some type of humanitarian assistance”, said Ms. Wahlström.

Responding to a series of questions, she said that in some instances aid workers were just swept up in the general violence and “rapidly increasing lawlessness” sparked by battling ethnic clans and the ever-present flow of weapons. At the same time, she was also sure that aid workers were the direct targets of violence, as well as robberies and thefts, largely because parties did not want them to be there or did not want them to be witness to aggression or report on the situation on the ground. “We trust that the international presence -- the African Union and the UN’s efforts -- will calm the situation down. This is the most urgent thing we see ahead of us.”

Making matters worse was a deteriorating nutritional situation, she added. For the first time in nearly three years, surveys were indicating that the number of malnourished people in the region had crept above the 15 per cent “threshold” level to 17 per cent in some areas. The “very worrying” pattern appeared to be the same in all three Darfur states, but there was hope that the trend was not permanent and could be stabilized.

Responding to questions, she said that the surveys, including a recent study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), had all concluded nearly the same thing: that the number of malnourished people in Darfur was on the rise. OCHA would continue to monitor the situation to see if it could be counteracted and if malnutrition was spreading beyond the displaced population into the local host communities.

On the positive side, she said that the United Nations had successfully worked with Khartoum on implementation of the administrative aspects of a joint communiqué signed in March between the Government and humanitarian agencies on issues such as easing visa restrictions and import duties. At the same time, OCHA was concerned by the Government’s expulsion earlier in the week of the head of CARE International’s operations, after reports that an internal memo about staff safety in the country came to the attention of Sudanese officials.

She said that the United Nations was looking into the situation to see whether it was just a misunderstanding between the parties. “We obviously think that this sends the wrong signal to the international community, and we would like to hope that the Sudanese authorities will reverse this decision,” she added.

With expectations among the people of the region “very high” ahead of the imminent deployment of the hybrid United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), Ms. Wahlström said that OCHA’s message was that, under the current circumstances, the humanitarian effort -- currently the largest aid operation in the world -- would have to be sustained at least through 2008 before any “credible development effort could be feasible” and before people on the ground felt secure enough to engage in such long-term efforts. If the violence and lawlessness were not brought under control, it was unrealistic to think that the millions of displaced people would return to their homes, she said.

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For information media • not an official record



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