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UNHCR Chief: Sudan Too Dangerous for Refugees to Return

The head of the United Nations agency for refugees, winding up a tour of Sudan's western Darfur region and eastern Chad, says Sudanese refugees want to go home, but it is too risky.

Earlier in the week, leaders at a camp in Darfur for those displaced by the fighting told U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres that, to them, security was more important than food.

After touring refugee camps in Sudan and Chad, Mr. Guterres said he was struck by the strong desire of those displaced by the Darfur conflict to return to their villages. But fighting continues between rebels and government troops and their allied Arab militias.

"The main problem for everybody is security," he noted. "They want to go back to their homes, and I think this is a basic right that needs to be granted to them. For that to be possible, there needs to be security. And, of course, we have told everybody that we would not mislead them, we would not promote return without security, and return must be voluntary. It must be their option, and respect of that is a basic principle of our action."

The conflict in Darfur, which started in early 2003, has left about two million people homeless. Most of them have fled to the relative safety of camps within Darfur. Another 200,000 fled to eastern Chad. But even in the camps, life for the refugees is precarious. Supplies of food and medicine are often scarce. Many women, and even children, have been raped while collecting water and firewood outside of the camps.

Mr. Guterres, in a telephone interview from Chad's capital, N'djamena, said conditions in Sudan have created the world's worst humanitarian problem, and the violence poses a threat to the whole region.

"Unfortunately, the international community has been absent-minded about Sudan, because there were other concerns," he said. "The Darfur crisis and tragedy is already a little bit forgotten. It's very important for people to be aware that this is a crucial country with borders with Egypt, with Libya, with Chad, with Central Africa Republic, with Uganda, with Congo, with Kenya, with Ethiopia, with Eritrea. And so, the potential for stabilization or destabilization of the situation in Sudan is enormous. And it's crucial for this region that peace is achieved, and, toward that, we will all have to work."

Mr. Guterres said he is encouraged that peace talks are set to resume in September. He said the international community needs to put more pressure on Sudan's government and the two main Darfur rebels groups to reach an accord by the end of the year.