Renowned soprano Barbara Hendricks has visited a camp in northern Burkina Faso to raise awareness about the plight of tens of thousands of Malian refugees in Africa’s Sahel region and to help raise funds for UNHCR’s relief operations there.
Hendricks, UNHCR’s only honorary lifetime goodwill ambassador, on Friday visited the Damba Refugee Camp, some 50 kilometres from the border with Mali. Most of the 3,900 refugees fled their homes in northern Mali over the past six months, to escape fighting between government troops and Tuareg rebels as well as the activities of Islamist militias.
The conflict in Mali has forced almost 200,000 people to seek refugee in neighbouring countries, including Burkina Faso (65,000), Niger (42,400) and Mauritania (88,800). Another 159,000 are displaced within Mali.
“Malian refugees have fled the worst and are trying to rebuild their lives in camps or settlements,” said Hendricks, adding that her visit was aimed at bringing “their fears and their anxieties to the press, to public opinion and to those who will decide whether to help aid agencies like UNHCR.”
One refugee, a 62-year-old Tuareg called Aichatou, said she had been separated from her sons, with one crossing into Niger, another finding shelter in the Burkina Faso capital, Ouagadougou, and the third stuck near Timbuktu in Mali. She had not been in touch with them for weeks
Hendricks could identify with the woman, who had brought with her to Damba the children of neighbours who did not wish to leave Mali. “As a mother, you fear for your children when you are separated from them,” Hendricks said.
Another refugee, Aminatou, aged 50, told Hendricks she had decided to flee to Burkina Faso with her seven children when “we heard attacks had taken place on the main cities in the north [in early April]. There were also armed gangs roaming the region. I did not want my children to be exposed to militia, I wanted to protect them.”
Most of the refugees in Damba are from Gossi, in the Timbuktu region, while some families also came from Gao, one of the towns now controlled by Islamist groups. Malik, 35, left the city on June 29 with his wife and their two children. “We rented a small car and drove out of Gao,” he explained, adding that he had heard it was now difficult to leave.
Most refugees in the camp are nomads and prefer to live in shelters made from branches and plastic sheeting provided by UNHCR, rather than the tents available. Living conditions are tough, with aid agencies such as UNHCR struggling to ensure the minimum humanitarian standards for the refugees.
The funding situation is critical as UNHCR has received only about a quarter of the US$153 million it needs for this year for operations in Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Mali. The shortfall is having an impact: in some camps in Burkina Faso, refugees are only receiving seven litres of water a day, well below emergency standards.
“And 10 litres is an emergency standard, we should be aiming for 20 litres per day per person. We need money to be able to build up more wells or rehabilitate boreholes,” said Hendricks, appealing to donors. Funding is also needed to improve camp infrastructure as well as education and health care.
“The international community needs to pay more attention to this area,” said the American-Swedish singer, while warning: “”We must be prepared for new influxes as the situation in Mali is not improving.”
She also stressed the importance of health care, especially for children. “We can not wait for a tragic situation to happen, the international community and donors need to be more preventive.”
By Helene Caux in Damba Refugee Camp, Burkina Faso (unhcr)