MENTAO CAMP, Burkina Faso, March 19 (UNHCR) – Aicha is suffering: she is far from her home in the central Malian district of Mopti and she has caught a pulmonary infection, which is compounded by the harmattan, the dusty trade wind that sweeps from the Sahara to the Atlantic coast from November to March.
The 45-year-old and her four children arrived in Mentao Refugee Camp in north-west Burkina Faso less than two weeks after the start on January 11 of the French military intervention in Mali to push back anti-government militants.
At first, the fast-evolving situation in Mali raised hopes that many displaced people would be able to go back to their homes soon. But the reality is that thousands have since fled to neighbouring countries – mainly Burkina Faso and Mauritania – to escape the fighting or from fear of reprisals. They need help.
In Burkina Faso, many of those who have fled across the border are ethnic Tuareg and Arab women and children, like Aicha and her young. Their menfolk are staying behind to take care of their cattle, indicating that people are increasingly fleeing out of desperation.
New arrivals are met at the border by mobile teams from UNHCR or its partners, and transported to Mentao or Goudebou refugee camps, where they receive assistance, such as hot meals upon arrival and traditional shelter kits, and are individually registered. More than 6,000 have arrived since the French intervention in January.
Aicha's journey to Mentao was not so straightforward. She had resisted earlier chances to flee from her central Mali village, Boni, despite the deteriorating social and economic situation. She felt she had too much to lose.
"We are simple people, all we have is our animals and our friends, nothing else, nothing more," Aicha said of her life. But over the past year, things became even harder as war engulfed the country and rebels took over the north and much of the centre of the country. "Our worst fears have now become reality. We left our animals and our friends. We feel we have only fear, no more life," she said, explaining her situation.
The developments in Mali last year took thousands of farming folk like Aicha and her husband by surprise, although inequality between the sub-Saharan people of the south and the Tuareg and Arabs of the north had led to separatist conflict in 1990 and 2007. Most of Aicha's Arab relatives fled to Burkina Faso or Mauritania soon after the fighting first erupted between government soldiers and Tuareg rebels in January last year.
The victorious Tuareg rebels were followed by militants, who imposed strict Islamic law in areas under their control in the north and centre, including Boni. Aicha was not used to such an austere lifestyle, such as having to wear a veil.
"Life was difficult in 2012, but it was bearable," she noted. "I would wake up and prepare food for my children before they went out to look after our livestock. I would spend time with my friends when my husband went to Boni to sell some animals. It was correct."
In January, the fighting swung back to the region as the French-backed Malian army advanced north against the militants. Aicha could hear the sounds of war rumbling closer and decided she must flee to save her children.
Other villagers were thinking the same and the men clubbed together to hire a truck to take their wives and children to nearby northern Burkina Faso and then on to Mentao, a camp of 11,000 located about 80 kilometres from the border. Some of the villagers of Boni already had relatives there.
But instead of taking them to Mentao, the drivers duped the group of 20 women and children, leaving them at a village 60kms short of their destination after a long and uncomfortable journey without food and water. Luckily, the locals took pity on the refugees and took them by donkey to Mentao.
In response to the spike in new arrivals, UNHCR staff based in the nearby town of Djibo opened a transit centre where refugees stay for two days in newly erected tents (for up to 500 people) before being moved to the camps. More latrines and bathing facilities were built in the transit centre to cope with the extra population.
Aicha and her group, after being stopped by police near Mentao, were taken by UNHCR protection staff to this transit centre, where they were interviewed and registered. "This is a particularly important time for those in categories regarded as most vulnerable, such as female-headed households, said UNHCR Protection Officer Euphrasie Oubda. "They can tell us about things like health problems and trauma and then we can give them the proper care," either directly or through humanitarian aid partners.
Aicha was then moved to Mentao Camp and her own space, where she receives regular visits from UNHCR community services staff. After a week there she felt safe but missed home. There is a small silver living: her four children will go to school for the first time.
"My oldest son, who is 10, has never been to school: he has been a shepherd most of his life," she told visitors. "Although life in Mentao has been better than I thought, life as a refugee is still not a correct life such as the one I had back home," she added, poignantly.
By Hugo Reichenberger in Mentao Camp, Burkina Faso
More than 350,000 people have fled their homes because of civil unrest in Mali. Too many families have suffered during the long journey to safety, and as a result, children and babies are severely malnourished.
At the same time, rising global food prices and a severe drought across the Sahel have combined to cause food shortages across a huge portion of West Africa.
Funding is the key -- but hungry children don't understand budgets or procurement.They just want something to eat.
As a supporter of UNHCR's work on GlobalGiving, you have already made an impact, and we are very grateful. But I’m hoping you can find an extra year-end gift to help families who endured life-threatening struggles in Mali.
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Since it began in January, the rebellion in northern Mali has driven more than 300,000 people from their homes. Many are seeking refuge in marginally safer areas in the south, while an even greater number have fled to neighbouring countries.
Valentin Tapsoba, UNHCR's coordinator for the Mali situation, has spent most of the year overseeing efforts to ensure their safety and protection. He is in charge of a massive relief operation that spans a vast portion of the Sahel, including Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Mauritania. Tapsoba is based in Dakar, Senegal, but recently visited several European capitals to meet with donors and journalists and make the case for a robust humanitarian response to the Mali emergency. During a stop in Geneva, he spoke with Christopher Reardon, the refugee agency's senior digital editor/writer. Excerpts from the interview:
What are the conditions like for refugees in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania?
One of our biggest concerns is water. In an emergency situation, we should have at least 15 litres per person per day, but in Niger we are under that. In Burkina, the average is more or less 17 liters per person per day. We are trying to increase the daily water supply to 20 liters per person – because water is life. If you don't have clean water, you can get cholera and many other diseases.
We have also a big challenge in terms of education. Many students lost the school year 2011-2012. Now we are trying to see with UNICEF whether we can have a memorandum of understanding signed so that the school year 2012-2013 can go forward. Education is a protection tool, and we don't want students to be sitting idly and risk being recruited by the insurgent groups in northern Mali.
What is it that keeps UNHCR from providing enough water?
With water, the first issue is resources. UNHCR launched an appeal for $153.7 million, but so far we have received $64 million – less than 50% of the requirement. The second challenge is location. In the Sahel. you can drill boreholes, but you may not find water. Even if you find water, it may be too salty and you need to treat it. Or it may not give enough for the refugees, the host communities as well as animals. You see, when the refugees fled to Burkina, for example, they also brought many cattle. You have to give water to the livestock too, because they are an important source of resilience for people.
If water is already in short supply, and education too, what will happen if the fighting in Mali intensifies and more people flee?
Increasingly, it is not a question of whether there will be an intervention by ECOWAS [the 15-member Economic Community of West African States]. The question is when it will it be. We are likely to have a massive outflow of refugees to neighboring countries – not only to Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania but it can even go to Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Senegal. So we are preparing contingency plans and so forth so that we will be able to deal with various scenarios. We have to take them to the international community, to raise more funds and raise awareness that the situation is not over. I can say it is just starting.
Is UNHCR playing a role inside Mali as well, helping internally displaced persons, or IDPs?
Yes, UNHCR is playing a role within the [inter-agency] cluster approach in Mali. We are the protection lead, meaning that we are doing the profiling of IDPs so that all of the agencies can have a clear idea of the composition of the family members as well as their place of origin. Furthermore, UNHCR has stockpiled some non-food items in Mopti like sleeping mats, jerry cans, buckets, tarpaulins, kitchen sets, blankets and mosquito nets for distribution to some of the 40,000 IDPs in the Mopti region.
Has there been any indication from governments in neighboring countries that they would ever turn people back?
The governments of Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger have opened their borders, their hearts and their host population to receive the refugees who are fleeing from Mali. These countries have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, and therefore they will not close their borders. But if there is a military intervention in the north of Mali, Al Qaeda and the terrorists may take the same escape routes as the refugees. This is worrisome for us in the field, because if they close the border they may be blocking the arrival of people who indeed need international protection.
Are you satisfied with the level of media coverage about the Mali emergency?
No, we are not satisfied. When you wake up in the morning and turn on your radio or TV, you find coverage of Syria from the BBC, from CNN, from Al Jazeera. But it is rare that you hear anything coming out from Mali. I know that accessibility is very tough.
But one refugee child who is leaving Mali to go to Burkina or Mauritania or Niger has the same essential needs for protection and assistance as a Syrian going to Jordan or Lebanon or Turkey.
The refugees from Mali are traumatized, and they should not be forgotten.
The UN Refugee Agency is warning that a lack of funds is seriously threatening its efforts to help more than 300,000 Malians uprooted by conflict and insecurity in the north of their country. "To date, we have received only 13% of the $153.7 million needed to assist desperate Malians displaced inside and outside their country," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told journalists in Geneva.
The appeal comes amid reports of more people fleeing instability and fighting in Mali. Over the past four weeks alone some 20,000 Malians have crossed into Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania, and more are coming. Mauritania, for example, is currently receiving an average of 460 people every day, as a result of continuing clashes in Mali.
"Our efforts focus on providing live-saving assistance to more than 170,000 Malian refugees in the three countries. But the funding shortfall means that the provision of even the most basic assistance, such as water, sanitation, shelter and primary education, is far below the minimum humanitarian standards," Mahecic stressed.
Water supplies in the arid Sahel region are particularly low and most refugees are not receiving the emergency standard of 10 litres per person per day. The usual humanitarian standard per person is 20 liters of water per day. UNHCR and its partners have been trucking water to remote refugee sites, a costly undertaking because of high fuel prices and the need to drive long distances over bad roads.
"Also, we have been digging wells, but because of several years of drought in the Sahel, some of these dry up within three months," said Mahecic. "Our solution is to dig more boreholes, which yield larger quantities of water. But this requires the use of heavy and expensive equipment, which we cannot currently afford. These boreholes also need to be maintained," he added.
UNHCR also needs funding to construct more latrines. The humanitarian standard is one latrine to 20 people. However, in most camps this target is not met and refugees face the growing risk of disease and epidemics because of the dire sanitary conditions. These risks will be heightened when the rainy season sets in shortly.
Meanwhile in the education sector, with our current funding levels we are only able to provide schooling for one out of four Malian children in the refugee sites.
The Mali crisis began in mid-January following the outbreak of an armed Tuareg rebellion. The separatist movement has since April taken control of northern Mali with the help of militant groups. UNHCR expects more Malians to continue to seek safety in neighboring countries. The revised $153.7 million appeal envisages helping some 440,000 refugees and internally displaced Malians through the end of this year.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has called on the international community to help Malian refugees and host communities in Niger and said a political solution was urgently needed to prevent the situation in the Sahel region from turning into a global crisis.
"The international community must mobilize itself to assist the local communities and refugees in need in Niger and in the Sahel countries. Aid agencies crucially need more financial support," Guterres said during a four-day visit to Niger with World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director Ertharin Cousin.
"They must also come together in order to find political solutions to the Mali situation. This is absolutely necessary to avoid a crisis turning into a global threat to the security in the region," he stressed. The continuing fighting in Mali between government forces and rebel Tuareg fighters has left 150,000 displaced within the country and forced more than 160,000 to find refuge in neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. Others have arrived in Algeria.
Guterres and Cousin, who assumed office last month, arrived in Niger last Friday and have since visited refugees and host communities in the Ouallam and Maradi regions, where villages face food shortages. "We are facing in Niger, and other countries in the Sahel, a deadly combination: drought first, with a dramatic food security problem that WFP is addressing with an enormous effort, and an ongoing conflict in Mali," Guterres said Saturday in Mangaizé refugee camp.
"UNHCR has been moving the refugees from the volatile border areas to refugee sites, or camps further inland where they can have better access to water, shelter, health structures. But with the persistent political and security instability in Mali, we fear that new influxes will continue to put an additional strain on neighbouring countries," he added.
Mangaizé camp, located 75 kilometers from the border with Mali and about 150 kms from the capital Niamey, is hosting more than 3,000 Malian refugees. Many had fled attacks on northern cities and the general insecurity, reaching the camp by truck.
Ousseini, a 30-year-old primary school teacher, sold a television and some goats to raise enough money to pay a truck driver a week ago to take him, his wife, their son and seven nephews to Mangaizé from the town of Menaka, in northern Mali's Gao region. They originally came from Kidal, but left the town in early April when it came under attack. "We left because of insecurity, but also because I have not been paid since February," He explained. They made their way to Menaka, but decided to leave for Niger when the security situation deteriorated and it became difficult to get food and medicine.
Mariama, aged 47, also fled from Kidal to Menaka. She went with her seven children and mother-in-law, but could not afford to take everyone on to Niger. "My father gave me a goat that I sold to pay for transportation from Menaka to Niger, but it was not enough for all of us so I left my three youngest children with my cousins," she said. Her parents stayed behind in Kidal and she feared for their safety. "We could not stay in Menaka as my family members are also having problems to feed their own families, we just did not want to be an extra burden."
Conditions in the Mangaizé camp are tough; children, pregnant women and older people suffer a lot from the heat and the arid environment. Simple tasks require a lot of effort, like pumping water and pounding sorghum grains for food. Many people suffer from respiratory infections, diarrhoea and malaria and need treatment at the clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontières. UNHCR pays for an ambulance to take women facing difficult pregnancies to Ouallam city, an hour away.
While visiting Mangaizé, the High Commissioner noted the harsh living conditions but stressed to the refugees that UNHCR was working closely with its partners to improve their daily lives. UNHCR is about to move families to a tented camp.
Guterres met with Niger's Prime Minister Brigi Rafini and other senior officials on Monday to discuss the refugee situation and reiterated his thanks to Niger for hosting the Malian refugees.
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