Refugee numbers are rising daily in countries bordering Mali as fighting rages between the Malian army and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which is fighting for greater autonomy for the Tuareg.
There are also tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Mali.
A US$35.6 million appeal is being launched today, said Helene Caux, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) senior regional public information officer on 23 February, to deal with “the Mali displacement”.
The Burkina Faso Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Regional Cooperation said that by 21 February there were 16,299 Malian Tuareg refugees in the country. By 23 February that figure had reached 17,499.
The bulk of arrivals entered the country at Tina-koff, Inabao and Deou in the northern province of Oudalan. The rest are in nine other provinces. They are being hosted by individual families or by communities, and some by families in the capital, Ouagadougou. However, the ministry says, most are in sites in the Sahel Region: at Mentao in Soum Province and Inabao and Gandafabou in Oudalan Province.
The government has identified two sites in the regions of Goudebo and Ingan to set up refugee camps.
Initially, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has distributed energy biscuits, kitchen kits and blankets; the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization are providing medicines and water purification; UNHCR has provided 500 tents drawn from stockpiles in Douala, Cameroon, and is coordinating the response.
By 23 February, 28,858 refugees had arrived in Niger since the fighting began in January. These include citizens of Niger, some of whom had lived in Mali for several years. Here, too, locals have been helping the refugees. The government has provided food and local NGO PLAN Niger has also been providing support.
“There has been an initial response from the Niger government that has been quick,” Caux said.
Forty tons of non-food items have arrived from UNHCR’s stockpile in Accra, Ghana. The first distribution took place on 22 February in Ayorou District, Tillaberi Province. UNHCR has made distributions to 302 households at a site in Gaoudel, Ayorou.
“This is mostly blankets and plastic sheeting because it is cold right now,” Caux said.
On 16 February, UNHCR received 2,000 family tents which will be distributed as soon as the refugees are encamped. Each tent can accommodate six people.
Initial distributions were made at the border. Right now some refugees such as those at Sinegodar village are just 8km from the border. The UNHCR standard is to have people at least 50km from a border.
Sinegodar hosts some 8,000 refugees, many of whom crossed over from nearby Malian villages. They are housed in makeshift shelters. Mangaize village also hosts refugees, many of whom know it as it is a large cattle market they used to frequent.
A Malian refugee woman in Mangaize, northern Niger, ponders her future. In January, she and her family fled Menaka, a town in Mali, because of the general insecurity and fighting between the army and Tuareg fighters Ayorou and Abala districts are hosting refugees. All these places are in Tillaberi Region.
The government has indentified a site for the refugees at Ouallam, about 100km north of Niamey, but it will take two weeks to finish setting up the camp.
“We might need one or two other sites,” Caux said.
The initial condition of refugees is not bad but the fear is that if the situation lasts, problems could arise because of the makeshift nature of the shelters. Children could suffer from respiratory and other ailments.
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the region and is, like several Sahel countries, affected by a severe drought. Aid agencies require more for their operations in this region – a fact that is often overlooked.
“We need funding because the crisis unfolded so quickly. It’s hard to attract funding because we are competing with places like Somalia,” Caux said.
UNCHR will begin registration of refugees today at the border village at Mangaize, and will then move to other areas.
Thousands of people fleeing the fighting in Lere, west-central Mali, are being cared for in the Mauritanian centres of Fessala and Hodh el Charghi. A camp at Mbera established for Tuareg refugees in the 1990s is being rehabilitated. UNHCR says the site has several water points and structures designed to serve as schools and health centres.
Fighting has been reported recently in the northeastern Malian areas of Tessalit and Tinezewadern. Refugees have been reported in Algeria.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says in northern Mali people have abandoned their homes and fields and lost their livestock. Many families are living under trees or out in the open.
At least 61,400 have been displaced from Menaka, Aguelhoc, Tessalit, Inhalid, Niafunke and Lere. Because of the drought in the Sahel, food supplies are limited in markets and prices high.
ICRC says the greatest need for the displaced is access to safe drinking water. There is also a shortage of pasture. In Menaka, in Gao Region, the main activities are animal breeding and farming.
The fighting began on 17 January with battles in Inhalid, Tessalit, Tin-Zaouaten, Aguel Hoc, Menaka, Anderanboukan, Hombori, Nyafunke and Lere – all in the northern half of Mali.
The MNLA says it wants “to free the Azawad people from the illegal occupation of Azawadan territory held by Mali” and hold a referendum to determine if Azawadians want a separate independent republic.
The Malian government says it is fighting the MNLA and elements of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb to keep its territorial integrity. The MNLA and the Malian government each say atrocities were committed by the other side.
Algeria, France and the USA have called for an end to the fighting. However, at a two-day summit in February the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), of which Mali is a member, condemned the MNLA rebellion and expressed full backing for Mali in defending its territorial integrity.
On the humanitarian front, on 16 February ECOWAS and the UN Security Council approved US$3 million for victims of the food crisis and rebel attacks in the Sahel-Sahara region of West Africa.