The UN refugee agency has deployed emergency teams to countries surrounding Mali to help meet the needs of some 20,000 people who have been forced to flee fighting in the north of the country. Most of the displaced are in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
Fighting between rebel Tuareg groups and government forces in the Azawad region of northern Mali began in mid-January. “In the past three weeks, at least 10,000 people are reported to have crossed to Niger, 9,000 have found refuge in Mauritania and 3,000 in Burkina Faso,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva on Tuesday.
In Niger, most of the new arrivals are from Menaka in Mali. Some have settled very close to the volatile border.
“Many of the new arrivals are sleeping in the open and have little access to shelter, clean water, health services and food,” Edwards said, adding that people were scattered mainly in villages in Tillaberery, Ouallam and Filingue districts, in the north of the country. Sinegodar, a village in Tillabery district, is hosting more than 5,500 Malians, with only one water outlet for the refugees and the local population.
While most of those who recently fled Mali are nationals of the country, recent arrivals in Niger also include citizens of Niger who had been living in Mali for decades. Many have been crossing the border between the two countries regularly to find grazing land for their cattle.
Local communities along the border, despite being affected by the food crisis in the Sahel region, are sharing their resources with the new arrivals. The authorities have also distributed food.
Edwards said four additional UNHCR staff were in Niger and more were on their way. “We plan to send aid for 10,000 people from our stockpiles in the region.”
UNHCR staff in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, also reported the arrival of some 3,000 Malian Tuaregs following attacks on their homes and businesses in the Malian capital Bamako and in the nearby town of Kati last week.
Many of the new arrivals are staying with host families in Ouagadougou and Bobo Dioulasso, 320 kilometres south-west of the capital. Other new arrivals have been reported in the north-west of the country, especially near Djibo, in Soum province. An inter-agency mission, including UNHCR, is scheduled to go there by the end of the week to assess the needs of the people.
Meanwhile, in Mauritania UNHCR has sent several missions to the village of Fassala, near the border with Mali, where more than 9,000 people have arrived since January 25. The mainly Tuareg Malian refugees come from the region of Léré on the other side of the border. They told UNHCR that they fled fighting between government forces and rebel Tuareg fighters, fearing retaliation by army troops.
The Mauritanian authorities, with the support of UNHCR, are taking care of the new arrivals. Medical services are being offered by local health clinics and water is being trucked in by the authorities.
“UNHCR Mauritania distributed 15-day food rations and non-food items to cover the urgent needs of 5,000 refugees in the refugee site of Fassala. Key needs identified are food, shelter and other basic items,” Edwards said, adding that the refugee agency would strengthen its presence in Mauritania by fielding an emergency support team.
Fighting between Tuareg rebels and Malian forces resumed on January 17, breaking a 2009 agreement that had officially ended the Tuareg rebellion. The Tuaregs are an ethnic Berber people living in the Sahara region.
By Divers (UNHCR)