Relief workers say the well being of hundreds of thousands of people in Sudan is at risk because of a decision by the government to oust 13 aid groups, shortly after the International Criminal Court ordered the arrest of the nation’s president on charges of war crimes.
Human-rights advocates say Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is using the aid organizations as a bargaining chip in his effort to get the U.N. Security Council to defer the court’s case against him.
The 13 groups—12 charities and one for-profit development organization—employed about 6,500 people in the country, most of them Sudanese. The United Nations has said their removal will cut aid in Darfur by at least a half. Four Sudanese charities have also been asked to close.
And the situation could get worse. According to news-media reports, Sudan’s president threatened during a trip to Darfur on Sunday to expel more aid groups, along with diplomats and peacekeepers.
The departure of the 13 relief groups could leave some refugee camps without any assistance. For example, both charities that provided medical care in Darfur’s sprawling Kalma camp, home to 90,000 people, have been evicted.
“You can’t survive very long without clean water and health care,” said Michael Kocher, vice president of international programs with the International Rescue Committee, one of the two groups. “The consequences will be dire.”
Sudanese security forces have visited charities’ offices, bank accounts have been frozen, and some groups’ assets have been seized. Aid officials say they fear for the safety of staff members.
Some charities that are still operating in Darfur say they may step up their operations. To do so, they are seeking additional money.
Oxfam America sent out an e-mail appeal on Thursday and is also reaching out to foundations.
But even if organizations that remain in Darfur can scale up their efforts, “filling a gap of 50 to 70 percent would be almost impossible,” said Dawit Beyene, the group’s deputy director of humanitarian response.
Aid workers say the evictions came as a surprise. While they had anticipated that Sudanese President Bashir might retaliate by targeting charities, they did not expect the move to affect so many groups, nor come so quickly.
“We were very much taken aback,” said Mr. Beyene.
His group has not been affected by the edict, although its British counterpart was among those ousted from Darfur.
Mr. Beyene added: “We haven’t seen any criteria or heard anything about how the selection happened.”
Indeed, the rationale behind why some groups were targeted remains unclear, although the affected charities are among some of the largest operating in Sudan. Adding to the confusion is the fact that some charities have been asked to leave all of Sudan, whereas others say they have been told only to close their programs in Darfur.
In revoking the charities’ licenses, the Sudanese government accused the groups of acting as informants to the International Criminal Court. The aid organizations deny the charge.
Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College and author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide, suggested that some groups that had been critical of the Sudanese government in the past—for example, the Dutch branch of Doctors Without Borders, which had produced a report on rape in Darfur—were among those kicked out. He said the Khartoum government might also be trying to clear some areas of eyewitnesses to violence.
Activists, meanwhile, said the United Nations and foreign governments should not allow Sudan’s move to delay action by the International Criminal Court.
“The question is, Do we allow a regime to blackmail an independent judicial process by taking its population hostage?” said Denise Bell, Darfur campaigner with Amnesty International. “This is not a matter of justice or security, or security or peace. They can all happen together.”
On Thursday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Sudan to reinstate the relief organizations.
The aid groups, meanwhile, have appealed the government’s decision. Some are also asking their supporters to contact the United Nations and urge the world organization to put additional pressure on Sudan.
Roughly 7,000 people have signed the International Rescue Committee’s online petition, while Mercy Corps sent a a similar petition by e-mail to supporters on Friday.
Some observers say that in the weeks before the ICC issued its warrant, foreign governments and the United Nations ought to have put more pressure on Sudan to prevent it from lashing out against aid groups.
“They should have been much more prepared and spoken out in very strong terms, laying out the consequences in ways that did not permit this ghastly hiatus, with the announcement by the ICC and four hours later the explusion of these organizations,” said Mr. Reeves.
Charity officials say they are unsure how long the situation will persist.
Mr. Reeves said he thought some of the 13 groups might be allowed back into Darfur, but only if the United Nations, United States, and other governments spoke out more aggressively.
“It’s a distinct possibility but it really depends on the international community,” he said. “This is a regime quite accustomed to calculating the response of the international community and seeing what they’re willing to do.”