UNHCR leaving tsunami-hit Aceh

BANDA ACEH: The UN's refugee agency said yesterday it would complete a full withdrawal from the tsunami-hit Aceh province by the weekend as new restrictions on aid groups began to take effect. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it had hoped to complete US$60mil (RM228mil) relief plan for the province, where more than half a million people are homeless, but the government said its help was not needed. 

Robert Ashe, UNHCR's regional representative, said he understood the government's decision, but said his agency would remain on standby to help in the long-term reconstruction of the devastated region. 

“Obviously we would be delighted if the government wants us to back, but we will have to wait for future discussions to see if that is possible,” he said. 

Indonesia will next month impose new regulations that are expected to result in the ejection of scores of foreign relief workers from the province, raising concerns for the welfare for those still needing assistance. 

Aceh, where more than 126,000 people were killed and 93,000 missing from the Dec 26 earthquake and tsunami, was off-limits to foreigners prior to the disaster as government troops tried to crush a long-running rebellion. 

While it insists it still welcomes a foreign presence, the government has pushed for the early completion of a massive overseas military relief operation and has imposed restrictions on aid workers looking for long-term involvement. 

It initially imposed a March 26 deadline for reviewing the relief operations, but this week pushed it back until April 27, saying it would spend the next month investigating aid groups. 

Agencies that fail to meet criteria set out in a vague “blueprint” for reconstruction will be given their marching orders, but those allowed to stay are likely to face a bureaucratic minefield to secure proper authorisation. 

Ashe said his agency had begun to pull out in line with the original March 26 deadline, and was resigned to the departure despite the last-minute extension. 

The UNHCR operation in Aceh has helped more than 100,000 people on the province's demolished west coast. 

In January it drew up a US$60mil operational plan for Aceh to provide shelter for the hundreds of thousands of people needing permanent resettlement. 

The agency said about US$33mil (RM125mil) of the funds raised remained unspent and may now be diverted elsewhere if the UNHCR was not permitted to be involved in the reconstruction phase. – AFP 

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