No babies cry and the children are not even curious about the presence of strangers. “It is hunger and they are shy – they are not used to strangers,” explained one of the mothers, who is among a couple of thousand Malians who have crossed into southwestern Niger and sought refuge in the windswept village of Gaoudel, Ayorou District, after fleeing clashes between Malian government troops and Tuareg rebels.
At least 10 children are among those sheltering in silence from the relentless sun under scraps of fabric tied to sticks in the ground. They are 10km from the Malian border.
During their two-day desert journey here they have had little to eat. Many had no time to pack anything and fled with just the clothes they were wearing. Some managed to come with their animals.
The host population – Tuaregs like the refugees – share their scarce food and water, but are stretched: The refugees now outnumber the villagers.
“They are the same people as us – black Tuaregs. Some are relatives, separated only by the border. We are all fighting drought and do not have enough food,” said Gaoudel village chief Echec Ahmad.
Their only water source – an uncovered well – will run dry in two months, he said, adding that repeated droughts had decimated their herds and that they depended on the few green beans they had managed to grow in a dried-up stream.
Some of the Malian men have arrived with animals, hoping to sell them in Ayorou town (30km away) in Niger’s Tillaberi Region, one of the worst-affected by drought in Niger. But the livestock trade in Ayorou is in poor shape. “There are a lot of animals in the market but not enough buyers,” said Biga Beidari with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Tillaberi.
The closure of Niger’s border with Nigeria, after attempts by militant group Boko Haram to set up a base in the drought-stricken country, has had an impact on the local economy: The absence of Nigerian livestock buyers in local markets seems to have hit pastoralists across the region hard.
“If I sell three goats, I will be able to buy only 100kg of millet – enough for my family [two wives and seven children] to eat for 10 days,” said Mohammed Warimagalis, a Malian refugee and pastoralist who has picked up English on his travels. He arrived in Niger two days ago with 30 goats, which he fears will help his family survive for only about three months.
No jobs, little food
Most towns in the region are awash with people from food-scarce areas looking for work. An assessment by French NGO Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED) found 94 percent of the villages in the districts of Tillaberi, Ouallam and Filingue do not have enough food; 89 percent of the population, or more than a million people, are affected.
The Mali clashes come at an unfortunate time, said Oumarou Sadou, prefect of Tillaberi. “But they [the refugees] are our neighbours and they need assistance now.”
Fighting in eastern Mali has spread to areas closer to the northwestern corner of the Tillaberi Region, prompting an influx of Malians into this part of Niger. Some aid workers fear the numbers could rise, as most arriving up to now had taken pre-emptive action. “We left as we heard the clashes were going to begin,” said Warimagalis.
Plan Niger, an NGO operating in the area, says the number of refugees has been increasing rapidly and more resources are urgently needed to support them.
Plan Niger spokesperson Maman Farouk said that over the past five days another 932 refugees had been recorded in Gaoudel. The NGO has been registering Malian refugee children in local schools. They need more food, tents, medicine, bed nets, blankets and mats. They also hope to drill wells to support the host community with water.
Based on local authority figures, IRIN estimates at least 187 Malians sought refuge in Gaoudel village every day in the past three weeks.
Thousands of Malian refugees have trekked across the border to small towns and villages like Mangaizé, Chinégodar, Koutoubou and Yassan in Tillaberi, since mid-January, according to the Malian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Most of them – more than 9,000 – ended up in Chinégodar, which is usually home to 1,500 people. However, the number arriving here, where the government [ naturally the NIGER government] and aid agencies have been providing support, has levelled off, said Benoit Kayembe, head of Médecins Sans Frontières Swiss in Niger.
Fighting between the Tuareg liberation movement MNLA (Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad) and government forces resumed in Mali in mid-January, after the Tuareg rebellion was officially declared over by the government in 2009.