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Aid groups return to Darfur – with new names

The decision by Mercy Corps, Care, and others to go back to Sudan's troubled region after being kicked out in March opens fresh debate over how to deliver aid to people living under oppressive regimes.

By Rob CrillyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 2009

An internally displaced woman of the Murle tribe carries her ration of food from the World Food Program at a distribution point in Pibor, Sudan, on March 21. Sudan disputed a statement made by UN humanitarian chief John Holmes that it would allow expelled aid groups back into Darfur.

Tim McKulka/UNMIS/ AFP/NEWSCOM/FILE

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Nairobi, Kenya

First, they were returning. In a statement last week, the United Nations chief humanitarian official said four aid agencies expelled from Darfur in March for "spying" had been given permission to come back to the wartorn region of Sudan, where more than 4 million people depend on help.

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Then they were not.

Over the weekend, the Sudanese government said that it would not allow to return any of the 13 international groups kicked out as part of Khartoum's retaliation against the International Criminal Court's decision to issue a warrant for the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir.

Instead, the groups would have to register as new agencies in order to operate in Darfur. Critics say that is a cynical ploy by Khartoum to use the aid groups to help limit Darfur death tolls, while at the same time tightening the already firm limits on their freedom of speech and action.

Both Mercy Corps and Care have played along by releasing statements that they were not returning. Rather, Mercy Corps Scotland and Care Switzerland applied to work in the country.

The decision to return exposes rifts within the agencies and is opening fresh debate on how best to deliver aid to people living under oppressive regimes.

"This is exactly what we were worried about – that NGOs will now have to bend over backward to keep the government happy, putting out press releases like this that make no mention of the humanitarian emergency or the fact that they were expelled in the first place," says one aid worker with experience of dealing with Khartoum officials. "It's as if there are no red lines beyond which we won't be pushed."

The cost of being expelled

The British aid agency Oxfam estimates that expulsion cost $5 million in severance pay to national staff, confiscated cars, computers, and other equipment.

Members of staff had personal items such as iPods and laptops taken.

Many complained of heavy-handed treatment. Some were subjected to intimidating questioning by state security officers.

Others were detained in Khartoum and denied exit visas until their organizations forked over six months' pay to Sudanese staff who had lost their jobs.

Since then, aid officials have been campaigning for their return.

Heavy US lobbying

Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts and Scott Gration, President Obama's special envoy to Sudan, both lobbied the Sudanese government on the issue of aid groups' expulsions during visits to Khartoum.

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