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For the last few years Sudan’s President al-Bashir has maintained every intention to shut down Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps throughout the Darfur region. Growing in number and size, the camps house 2.7 million displaced people who have sought refuge from conflict in Sudan as well as from neighbouring countries since 2003. Despite Government Officials claiming the war in Darfur has ended, the numbers of newly displaced in 2017 was 8200. Although fighting has reduced and the number of newly displaced has decreased from 2016, the concerns of the lack of security throughout Darfur and in neighbouring countries traps those affected by conflict within the confines of the camps. The demand on international humanitarian organisations is great, as UNAMID (UN Mission in Darfur) has worked for 11 years to protect and facilitate the delivery of essential humanitarian aid in a protracted conflict. While the responsibility of the protection of IDPs remains with the government under international humanitarian law, Khartoum are unwilling to allow humanitarian access in Darfur to continue whilst they focus on shutting down camps and forcing the return of IDPs and Refugees to their homes.
Under International Human Rights Law, which Sudan is obliged by, the rights of all individuals are to be ensured, protected and respected without any discrimination. Party to several international conventions that protect civilians during conflict, the Government of Sudan (GoS) has ratified the pact on Security, Stability and Development in Africa’s Great Lakes region and its protocols on the protection of IDPs and on property rights of returnees. This protocol requires states to respect and integrate UN principles on displacement into their legislation, directing them towards their legal obligations to protect them and their property. Following international concern over conditions in Darfur and the Two Areas, Sudan adopted displacement-friendly policies which established the GoS’ responsibility in ensuring IDP well-being as well as promoting choice in durable solutions to displacement. However, these policies are ineffective while the Government acts with impunity, committing gross human rights violations and ignores the security of its vulnerable citizens.
Bashir’s actions are problematic in this respect – in his public campaign to shut down the camps and force the return of displaced persons; he is neither promoting choice nor durable solutions. Forced return of IDPs and refugees violates international humanitarian law under the principle of non-refoulement, which ensures the protection of the displaced from being returned to a territory where they face well-founded persecution or discrimination. It also neglects the durable element of voluntary return which respects the safety and dignity of the returnee. Bashir’s proposed solution is neither sustainable nor in the best interests of those communities affected by conflict, but that isn’t his concern. It is even more worrying when UNHCR recently reported the voluntary repatriation of 500 Chadian refugees which was facilitated by the Governments of Chad and Sudan, followed by the closing down of the Mukjar camps. This only demonstrates that this is a real possibility for those displaced in Darfur.
While it is generally accepted that displaced persons wish to return home, which Bashir is playing off, the security situation back home doesn’t always allow this to materialise. As one Darfuri IDP interviewed poignantly remarked: ‘if there was peace, we wouldn’t need camps…people will stay as long as there is insecurity’. This is supported by the joint 2017 UNAMID/OHCHR (UN Human Rights) report on IDPs in Darfur that states insecurity, land occupation and incoherent policy as barriers to successful repatriation and reintegration. In order to encourage repatriation, certain steps need to be taken as they were in the situation of Chad. In brief, these steps are a cessation of hostilities that restores peace and security, allowing humanitarian agencies to operate, and finally, the creation of a legal framework that supports voluntary return. None of these have been achieved yet, making return impossible. If return is forced upon Darfur’s displaced while conflict rages on and there is no viable framework to support their return, they will simply become displaced elsewhere.
In 2015, during a temporary ceasefire, the GoS voiced their intention to facilitate the return of IDPs. This was later reiterated by the Vice President who pledged that all camps would be closed by 2017, and the Governor of Darfur who presented 3 options to displaced communities living in camps – integration, remain or return. The GoS have made it clear their favoured option is return and have backed it by offering incentives of support. This forces the question whether such stimulus is necessary if the security situation is stable enough for people to safely return. The push for return follows the 2011 Doha Document that provided a framework for a comprehensive peace process in Darfur by addressing the root causes of the conflict. This prompted international donors to pledge billions (Qatar was the only Government to actually donate) towards development projects that would create model villages for which IDPs could return. Although the GoS saw this as the answer to their IDP problem, the villages remain largely uninhabited as IDPs are reluctant to move. By the end of 2015, only 150,000 IDPs had registered for the model villages.
It is evident that the wellbeing of conflict-affected people is not a consideration in the plan to dismantle the camps. While the camps remain in Darfur they act as a reminder on the global stage of a decade long conflict that has severely affected the lives of its citizens. With a disturbing political and human rights record, the lifting of sanctions has allowed Sudan to emerge into 2018 with the image of a country on the road to recovery. With the removal of camps, the return of displaced communities and disarming militias, it can be argued that this is all part of a wider strategy to remove the threat of rebel groups and proceed with the campaign of a ‘new Sudan’. This image, however, will be tainted with the continued internal displacement and/or exodus of refugees that will come from shutting the camps.
If the GoS want to successfully encourage return, they have a lot more work to do than just forcefully shutting down the camps. They should work to improve human rights violations and develop existing policies that are designed to protect IDPs by ensuring their needs are covered in the long-term. By creating sustainable, transparent and inclusive policies, the GoS can effectively prevent any future mass protracted displacement.
Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made on the blog