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World: On UN Refugee Day, Action Is Urged On Sudan, The 'Worst Humanitarian Crisis'

The United Nations refugee agency says the number of refugees worldwide last year fell to its lowest level in a decade. But as the agency marks World Refugee Day on 20 June, a huge refugee crisis is unfolding in Sudan.

Prague, 18 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ahmad Adam Ahmad spoke to the British-based aid agency Oxfam about what his life has been like in recent months.

"Our living is very difficult because sometimes we didn't find enough food and water," he said. "We are running short of water. There is no food that contains vitamins so as to build the body."

Ahmad is one of at least 130,000 refugees who have fled to camps in Chad to escape fighting in Sudan's Darfur region.

He's among 2 million people affected by what a top UN official, Undersecretary-General Jan Egeland, this week said is now "the worst humanitarian crisis in the world."

Oxfam's Jane Beesley just got back from Chad and says conditions in the camps are desperate: "I saw groups of children [standing] behind the [water] truck and the last little bits of water from the back of the truck [were] dripping out of the pipe and they were standing there with the hands cupped to catch those last drops.... I saw a number of children who really are starting to suffer, you see a lot more ringworm, sticky eye infections, worms. Malnutrition is on the increase. Very sadly while we were there we heard that 11 people had died of diarrhea the day before, and that was mainly children. These things shouldn't be happening."

Up to 30,000 people have been killed and some 1 million people forced from their homes because of the fighting in Darfur in the past year. They're fleeing attacks on their villages by armed groups, chiefly the Arab militia known as the "Janjawid."

Human rights groups have described the attacks as a government-backed campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against local black Africans -- a charge the Sudanese government denies.

Annette Weber was in an Amnesty International mission to Chad in May and heard harrowing accounts from refugees.

"[They said] an attack would be with Janjaweed on horseback or camels accompanied by government-of-Sudan army forces on pickup [trucks]. Both of them would attack civilians and the local population," Weber says. "You have mass killings, you have summary executions of men, you have mass rape, you have forced displacement."

The Darfur crisis is unfolding as the UN marks World Refugee Day on Sunday, 20 June -- and as it touts what it says are encouraging figures showing a drop in refugee numbers worldwide.

Last year there were 9.7 million refugees, the lowest in a decade -- evidence, the UN refugee agency said, of its success in ending protracted refugee situations.

In a speech to mark World Refugee Day, Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said nearly 5 million people over the past few years have been able to either go home or to find a new place to rebuild their lives.

"UNHCR considers voluntary repatriation -- that's going back to one's original homeland once all the conditions are in place -- as the best solution for refugees. Of the 1.1 million refugees who went home last year, the biggest single group - some 646,000 people -- returned to Afghanistan. They joined more than 3 million other Afghans who have gone back home since 2002," Lubbers said.

But for the people who have fled their homes in Sudan, returning is still a distant prospect.

Carol Bellamy, the head of the UN children's fund UNICEF, visited internal displacement camps in Sudan earlier this week.

"I am sure we would all hope that people could return to their villages, but I met not one single person who indicated to me that they had any intention of immediately returning, because of the fear of what will occur to them," Bellamy said.

UN officials and others have been calling for Sudan to ease restrictions on aid agencies trying to bring food, water, and other supplies into Darfur.

But the UN itself has come under criticism for doing too little to help the people of Darfur and for not intervening to stop the killing and human rights abuses.

Adding to the urgency is that soon, the rains will come. And instead of relief, they will only bring further problems, as Oxfam's Beesley explained.

"What is going to happen is that there will not be enough water, it's not going to be clean, it's going to destroy the roads, so aid can't get in and some of the camps will be cut off for three months. There's going to be a greater danger of spreading epidemics and diseases. So we're very concerned at the moment, and there's an urgency to get aid in now before it becomes too late," Beesley said.

(RFE/RL's Irina Lagunina contributed to this report.)