Sahel refugee crisis strains aid efforts

Sahelian governments and local and international aid groups are struggling to cope with both the continual arrivals of people fleeing the regions of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in northern Mali, and the mounting number of hungry people across the region as the lean season gets underway. Altogether some 284,000 Malians have fled the north according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 107,000 of them thought to be displaced within Mali; 177,000 in neighbouring countries. New arrivals have pushed refugee numbers to 56,664 in Burkina Faso and to 61,000 in Mauritania, and to 39,388 in Niger, according to UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) . These governments are already struggling to get aid to millions of their inhabitants, who are facing hunger due to drought. Fleeing Malians have told the UNHCR they want to avoid getting caught up in possible conflict if government soldiers or foreign troops intervene in the north.

The UN estimates that 16 million people across the Sahel are facing hunger this year, and hunger levels are rising as the lean season gets fully underway. Families across the Sahel are also experiencing a significant loss of income as hundreds of thousands of Mauritanians, Burkinabes and Malians fled conflict in Libya, bringing a halt to the remittances they regularly sent.

New appeals
This complex mix of slow and fast-onset crises means the UN will be revising or launching new funding appeals from the current US$1 billion to $1.5 billion in coming weeks, said Noel Tsekouras, deputy head of office at the West Africa bureau of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Dakar.

Donors have given or pledged $750 million in aid, most of it for food or nutrition needs, which many in the chronically underfunded region welcome as a strong response, but mounting demands will make this just half of the total necessary.

The World Food Programme (WFP) alone needs $360 million to bridge its immediate funding gap, having received just over half of the US$790 million it requires for the Sahel so far, said Claude Jibidar, deputy director of WFP in West Africa. The agency desperately needs cash so that it can start buying food in regional markets, he said.

UNHCR will also be upping its Sahel refugee appeal beyond the $35.6 million requested, of which just 41 percent has been received. UNHCR spokesperson Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba said refugee camps in Burkina Faso and Mauritania will need to be expanded to keep up with the growing numbers.

The UN news agency IRIN looked briefly at the refugee and IDP situation in each affected country.

Mali displaced: unknown numbers
It is difficult to know the exact number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Mali—the UN estimates 107,000, with 75,000 staying in the north, though some observers in the area say as many as half of the population in some regions has left. Several aid agencies, including Catholic Relief Services (CRS), are diverting part of their aid response intended for the north to help displaced people who have fled south to Mopti in central Mali, or Bamako, the capital.

In Mopti, just south of the area declared as Azawad by National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), CRS is leading the IDP response and says they are seeing approximately 2,500 people pass through each week, most of them moving on to villages and urban centres such as Ségou and Bamako further south. CRS gives hot meals to those in transit and has recently started distributing food and other goods, much of it diverted from the agency’s planned food aid response for the north.

The Mali Red Cross, UNHCR, and other groups are also trying to provide aid to IDPs sheltering in Bamako.

Mauritania: scale-up needed
Malians in Mauritania tell UNHCR that the two main reasons they have left are fear of more violence, or difficulty getting by with minimal aid and breaks in basic services. Most of the 61,000 Malians sheltering in Mbéra camp, near the town of Fassala in southeastern Mauritania, come from Timbuktu, over which Ansar Dine, a jihadist Muslim group, claims control. Others come from the towns of Niaki, Guargandou, Tenekou and Goundam in the Timbuktu region, according to UNHCR, which says it needs $18 million to help the refugees for six months, as long as numbers do not rise significantly.

With hundreds of new arrivals every day, mostly women and children, agencies working in the camps—UNICEF, WFP and NGO Médecins sans Frontières—are having to scale up their activities far beyond the anticipated needs. MSF says camp conditions need to be urgently improved—by mid-April there was just one toilet for every 610 people. The nearest hospital to Mbéra is in Nema, a six-hour drive, so MSF is trying to provide basic services, including maternal health care and nutrition for children. An MSF communiqué notes that many Tuaregs are arriving with respiratory tract infections and diarrhoea.

Niger: the most critical
There have been no recent arrivals of refugees in Niger, leaving the population at 39,000, most of in Ouallam camp, 100 kilometers from the Niger-Mali border. However, Niger as a whole is in a very critical situation, with the same number of people facing hunger as in all the neighboring countries combined. When it comes to getting enough cereals and other basic foods into the country to stem hunger, “Niger is the biggest problem at the moment,” WFP’s Jibidar stressed.

Mariatou Adamou, a nurse at the nutrition treatment centre in Goudel, northern Niger, where many Malians originally arrived, said they were receiving higher numbers of malnourished children than in 2011, and adults were also suffering severely. “The grain banks are empty… so even the parents are malnourished and have nothing at home.” After an initial screening of newly arrived Malian children aged under five, 100% were considered malnourished.

UNHCR and WFP are supporting refugee families in Ouallam camp, while NGOs are also trying to include refugee needs in their ongoing responses. NGO Plan International is distributing food, conducting malnutrition screening and setting up drinking water distribution points and latrines for refugees staying outside of camps. They are also making available psychosocial support for people who witnessed violence or experienced devastating losses.

Azahara Naziou, a Malian in Goudel, told Plan International: “Bandits came with guns and stole many of our things… In my village they were taking animals [representing the main family assets] away right in front of us… When I left I couldn’t bring anything because I had to bring my children. I didn’t bring any food.”

Another refugee, Adaoula Harouzen, said more than 20 animals were taken from him. “They have not stolen them… they would tell me, ‘You have to choose your animals or your life.’ You stand there looking at them, helpless. You prefer saving your life, so they take the animals and go.”

Burkina Faso: water critical
More Malians are arriving in Burkina Faso every day, leaving the government’s National Commission for Refugees (CONAREF) overwhelmed, said its coordinator Denis Ouédraogo. The agency has only 13 staff members. “We were expecting refugees, but not to that extent in this context of food deficit in Burkina,” he told IRIN. ‘”The problem is how to respect our commitments towards our populations, who are faced with a food shortage, and to assist refugees at the same time.”

The government is mapping out a response plan for the 60,000 refugees, but Ouedraogo fears it will be “quickly outdated.” Only half of the government’s $170 million appeal to fund food security and refugee response has been met, said Roger Ebanda, head of the UNHCR in Burkina Faso, and the UN Refugee Agency’s funding is also low, making the response “difficult”. Ebanda and Jean Hereu, head of MSF in Burkina Faso, say water is the urgent need in the camps.

Refugees in camps in Burkina and Mauritania are receiving a maximum of 10 litres of water per day, but agreed minimum standards for disaster response puts rations at double that. Mohamed ag-Mohamed Maloud, 60, a trader from Timbuktu who is now acting as a refugee representative at Somgande camp on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, the Burkina capital, told IRIN he had been forced from his country during the fighting in the 1990s, but this experience is worse. ‘”The problem is that we do not have enough food… These are difficult days, but we try to cope.”

Condensed from IRIN, May 4

See our last post on the struggle in the Sahel.

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