Access has been a big issue for years for humanitarian actors in Sudan’s conflict zones. But in September, when authorities continued to deny access to the country’s Blue Nile state, the Brussels arm of international medical group Médecins Sans Frontières decided it was time to go.
It took a few more months for the medical group to settle its activities and wind down operations before finally announcing this week it is pulling out of the country, a decision that is sure to have an impact on the health situation in refugee camps in Blue Nile. It is also likely to affect the El Sereif camp in South Darfur, where the group said a reinforcement team of emergency specialists was denied access in April 2014 — just when outbreaks of waterborne diseases like hepatitis E required immediate attention.
The group hasn’t been able to resume its hospital and mobile clinic project in Shaeria town in East Darfur since authorities arrested and remove its staff from the area in December 2012.
“[We received] no official or unofficial explanations [regarding that],” Director of Operations Bart Janssens noted in a statement sent to Devex.
The decision to leave affected 10 international and 120 Sudanese national staff of MSF’s Brussels unit.
It’s unclear what will happen with them or what their agreements are with the medical group; MSF insists it will continue to “seek ways to provide assistance, as well as look for signs that there is a greater openness from the [Sudanese] government to permit international humanitarian presence in conflict-affected areas.”
Not a ‘snap decision’
Janssens explained the decision was in response not to one specific incident, but rather to the general systemic approach of authorities to continuously block or obstruct access in conflict-affected areas.
He argued any form of negotiations, either through high-level meetings, dialogue or through influential people and the media didn’t seem to have the “slightest impact.”
“Our experience is that the Sudanese government arranges meetings specifically to prevent international aid, rather than facilitate it,” he said.
The constraints are not unique to MSF’s Brussels unit. In fact, the group recalls the restrictions MSF Barcelona experienced in 2012, when the group was forced to suspend most of its activities in an area in Jebel Marra mountains in North Darfur after experiencing constraints in securing work and travel permits for staff. Authorities have also put a strain on the shipment of drugs and medical supplies to the area, leaving the medical group without the necessary materials to continue with its operations such as vaccination programs or the provision of delivery kits to pregnant women.
“Constraints have almost brought to a halt the MSF assistance to a hospital in Kaguro in the east Jebel Marra mountains, were MSF is the last iNGO to operate,” Janssens said.
The pullout of MSF’s Brussels unit follows the decision of MSF Paris last week to temporarily suspend its medical activities in the town of Frandala in the Nuba mountains of South Kordofan after a hospital it runs suffered another bombing by Sudanese Air Force.
But MSF clarifies two other MSF units from Barcelona and Geneva continue to operate in several areas in the country.
MSF Barcelona provides assistance to South Sudanese fleeing the conflict in their own country, and continues to run health facilities in parts of North Darfur. The Geneva-based section meanwhile continues to provide assistance in a hospital in Al Gedaref state, located in eastern Sudan, and runs a primary health care center and epidemiologic surveillance in Kerenek in West Darfur, apart from supporting the Ministry of Health on Ebola preparedness measures.
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