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Sudan Blocks UNHCR Visa Renewals in Darfur

UNHCR convoy passes Sudanese man riding on a camel, Um Shalaya refugee camp south of the Darfur town of Al-Geneina, April 25, 2007 file photo.
The U.N. refugee agency is appealing to government officials in Khartoum to reverse their decision to allow work permits of its international staff to expire, saying it will have to scale down humanitarian operations in Darfur if the visas can be renewed.

UNHCR says the Sudanese government has granted new work permits to only 17 of the agency’s 37 international staff, which is undermining operations in North Darfur state where all of the 20 aid workers denied visas are based.

Melissa Fleming, an agency spokeswoman, says Sudanese authorities have not reversed this decision despite extended follow-up discussions.

"My understanding is that this started in March, that we were informed that the permits would not be renewed," she said, explaining that UNHCR officials don't know why Khartoum has withheld the visas. "But some of them had not run out at that point, and then people were suddenly asked to leave in July."

The U.N. agency began publicly appealing the government to renew the permits after efforts of quiet diplomacy failed, calling the visas vital to continue protection and assistance programs for hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians.

Darfur has endured a decade of violence and widespread lawlessness since rebel groups began fighting the government in 2003, and humanitarian conditions in the region remain critical. In North Darfur alone, Fleming notes, recent fighting has displaced 100,000 people.

Fleming says the visa issue will force the agency to make cutbacks severe impacting existing programs. The U.N. Children’s Fund and the World Food Program continue to work at full strength in the region, and UNHCR may rely on them and other partners to help implement some of its activities.

The UNHCR reports an estimated two million people are currently internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Darfur, 60 percent of whom live in refugee camps. This year alone, there have been almost 300,000 new IDPs — one-third of them within and from North Darfur.