The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has begun scaling back its relief efforts in tsunami-hit Aceh province, an official said yesterday, saying the Indonesian government had yet to say if the organization would be allowed to participate in long-term rebuilding efforts.
UNHCR has about 100 international and local staff working in Aceh province. Since the Dec. 26 disaster that killed more than 126,000 people in Indonesia, its staff have distributed tents, plastic sheets and blankets to nearly 100,000 survivors.
"The UNHCR has not yet been requested to take part in the rehabilitation and reconstruction stage of the operation. We have sought and continue to seek some clarity," said Gregory Garras, the UNHCR's team leader in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.
March 26 was the date set by Jakarta for the withdrawal of agencies involved only in providing food and medicine to leave Aceh. The government announced on Thursday that the deadline would be pushed back by up to two months, but the announcement was not enough to satisfy UNHCR.
Before the tsunami, Aceh was all but closed to foreigners as Jakarta's forces battled separatist rebels.
"Of course we are extremely concerned about the March 26 deadline. It is very difficult to work in a situation of uncertainty," he added.
"We have begun some scaling back" of operations, Garras said.
If UNHCR does leave, it will come as a blow to survivors, who have already been huddling under canvas in makeshift camps for nearly three months.
The group had intended to build between 25,000 and 35,000 houses along the west coast of Aceh province for survivors left homeless by the disaster.
Garras said that if UNHCR is allowed to remain, the organization would next month likely begin a pilot project building some 1,000 homes in the village of Kruengsabe near the devastated fishing town of Calang.
Laura Worsley-Brown, spokeswoman for Indonesian Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab, said Shihab was on his way back from a meeting in Manila yesterday but planned to meet Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono shortly to discuss "what the government can do about communicating its future plans."
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