The UN refugee agency has stepped up its response to the growing displacement crisis in Mali, launching an aid airlift with a flight to Nema in Mauritania carrying 300 tents. It was the first of four planned aid flights to countries sheltering civilians fleeing clashes in Mali between the armed forces and Tuareg rebels.
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists that the agency has purchased 1,200 tents for Mauritania, 2,000 for Niger and 500 for Burkina Faso. These will be flown from stockpiles in Cameroon and Ghana to address the critical shelter needs in influx areas in the three countries.
Trucks will also be transporting basic relief items such as sleeping mats, blankets, jerry cans, mosquito nets and kitchen sets. Two trucks carrying 40 tons of aid are currently on the way from Ghana to Niger, where they are due to arrive by the middle of next week.
Meanwhile, at Mauritania’s Fassala border crossing with Mali, the authorities and UNHCR are working around the clock to provide the refugees with food, clean water and shelter. UNHCR has already sent several convoys of food and aid items, with distribution of a 15-day food ration being carried out by the local authorities.
Most of the almost 11,000 Malian refugees in Mauritania are Tuareg, many of whom are fleeing from nearby Léré. The Mauritanian authorities have identified a potential camp site in M’Bera, 50 kilometres from the border, and plan with UNHCR to move the refugees to the new location. The same site had hosted around 30,000 Malian refugees in the 1990s when there were also clashes between Tuareg rebels and the Malian army.
In Niger, a UNHCR emergency team on Thursday interviewed a group of Malian refugees in Sinegodar, north-east of the capital Niamey. “Refugees told us that their hometown in Anderamboukane is now empty. They say that the population fled from the Malian border town following a 26 January attack by rebels targeting homes, looting, poisoning water points, burning personal property and businesses and taking away animals,” Edwards said in Geneva on Friday.
“They all said that they want to go back as soon as peace is restored. In the interim, they would like to travel back to salvage whatever is left of their personal property and animals that may have survived the attacks and looting,” he added.
In Burkina Faso, UNHCR has released aid from its local stocks to be distributed to Malian refugees as well host communities in the arid northern region of the country. An estimated 8,000 people have crossed into Burkina Faso from Mali, of whom 6,000 are in the north.
Since the start of the Tuareg insurgency in northern Mali in mid-January, an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people have crossed to seek safety, mainly in neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. Not all are refugees or asylum-seekers. With Niger, for example, some of those returning are Niger nationals.