J an Egeland, the U.N. undersecretary for humanitarian affairs and the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, had a dual purpose for his visit to Washington this week. He told U.S. officials that American relief and food assistance has saved hundreds of thousands of lives in the Darfur region of Sudan and in Congo. But he also said there was a global trend of declining support for humanitarian efforts around the world.
Egeland warned that even previously stable countries, such as the Ivory Coast, could quickly fall into strife, causing humanitarian conditions to deteriorate rapidly.
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"It is very true that the Ivory Coast is where we have been having big access problems, in addition to the scarcity of humanitarian resources," Egeland said in a telephone interview yesterday. "In some areas, the refugees are off-limits to us. There are pockets inside the Ivory Coast that have been the most difficult, and refugees are coming across the border [to Liberia]."
Egeland said the United States was the largest U.N. contributor to the humanitarian system and his home country, Norway, was the largest per capita contributor.
In meetings Monday with the National Security Council, members of Congress and at the State Department, he said, "we talked about how to save lives in western Darfur and the eastern Congo, as well as in the Ivory Coast, where there is an exploding crisis."
Also on Monday, the Washington-based organization Refugees International charged that the offices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program were being inattentive to the needs of refugees from Ivory Coast who were crossing the border into Liberia.
Thousands of people had been abandoned and "had not received any food in six weeks," the organization said in a report. Fidele Lumeya of the Refugee International staff called on U.N. agencies to promptly hand out food to save the refugees from starvation.
The group's report said pregnant woman appeared anemic, nursing mothers were emaciated and young children were showing signs of malnutrition. "Let's give these people some comfort for Christmas," said Lumeya, who had traveled to eastern Liberia along the Ivorian border with Sarah Martin, who is also with Refugees International.
But Egeland said U.N. agencies and other nongovernmental organizations have faced dangers for their employees in that region and elsewhere. "The number one problem in Africa, next to too little resources, is security," Egeland said, adding that he had discussed the issue with U.S. officials.
"We have lost too many colleagues in the past year within the family I coordinate, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, the Congo and in Somalia," Egeland said. "Humanitarian aid workers who are impartial and needed to save thousands are often caught in the political crossfire. Terrorists and others are targeting us. The humanitarian space has to be respected."
Egeland returned to the United States on Dec. 8 from a tour of Somalia and Uganda, where "one of the world's longest and most forgotten conflicts still rages in the north," he said, referring to Uganda.
Yesterday, the U.N. reported in an e-mail bulletin that the number of people displaced by the last six years of conflict in Congo is estimated at 3 million.
Citing UNICEF, the bulletin said there were 2.5 million people displaced in eastern Congo, and nearly 4 million people have died as a direct or indirect result of the conflict.
It also referred to renewed clashes along the Rwandan border in recent weeks that have triggered further displacement and blocked relief missions.
In eastern Congo, the populations of entire villages, amounting to tens of thousands of people, have fled their homes, the report said.
"People have had no choice but to run," Egeland said. "I hope and pray that the United States will keep up its funding for humanitarian work. It has been essential for us," he said.
U.S. assistance to the region has decreased in the past year and might slump further. "The trend is not going in the right direction," he concluded.