Some 12,000 Malians have fled fighting in the towns of Ménaka and Anderamboucane in northern Mali and reached already food-insecure villages around Tillabéri in western Niger, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Niger’s capital, Niamey.
The Malian refugees are spread across the villages of Mangaizé, Chinégodar, Koutoubou, Yassan and Ayorou in Niger, according to the Malian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the bulk of them - an estimated 7,000 - in Chinégodar, which is usually home to 1,500, according to Franck Kuwonu at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Niamey.
Fighting broke out between Touareg rebels and former soldiers from Libya, and the Malian army in mid-January. Rebel groups and former Libya fighters have reportedly acquired fresh weapons as a result of the Libya conflict and have launched a new movement, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which calls for the creation of an independent state encompassing the regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu in northern Mali.
Niger’s Tillabéri region has been hardest hit by the 2011 drought and poor harvest and many inhabitants are already facing severe food insecurity, according to the government and aid agencies. Though assessments are still under way, the government estimated late last year that just under half of Niger’s population would be short of food this year.
“Chinégodar doesn’t even have enough grain to feed its own small population,” said Kuwonu, noting there are three tons of millet in the cereal bank. Millet prices in the area are 24,000 CFA francs (US$50) per 100kg bag, up from 19,000 CFA francs ($40) this time last year.
The ICRC and NGO Médecins Sans Frontières have been quickest to respond to refugees’ needs, the former having repaired water pumps in stressed host towns and distributed some blankets, shelter materials and food; the latter sending a nurse with basic medical supplies to help those in need.
However, logistics are slow said Kuwonu, and more food and shelter is needed. The ICRC spokesperson in Niamey, Germain Mwehu, told IRIN there is enough aid to meet immediate needs but not over the long-term.
An inter-agency UN mission evaluated the area last week and agency representatives are meeting tomorrow to discuss their response. Oxfam has also assessed the situation. All agencies will closely coordinate with the government on their response, said Kowonu.
Heading for Mauritania, Burkina, Guinea
According to PANA Press, some 6,000 Malians have also fled fighting in Léré, Niafunké and Goundam in Mali’s northern Timbuktu region, and are sheltering in Fassala Néré in Mauritania, some 1,260km east of the capital Nouakchott. A number of the children among them are allegedly severely malnourished, according to local NGO Association for Research and Development in Mauritania.
The local authorities and UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) are currently assessing the situation in more detail, UNHCR spokesperson Elise Villechalane told IRIN from Nouakchott. An unknown number of Malians have also fled east to Burkina Faso and western Guinea, says the ICRC in Mali.
Meanwhile, an unknown number of Malians are fleeing south to Mopti, some 640km north of the capital Bamako, and to Bamako itself.
Amina Coulibaly, a producer with national radio in Gao, eastern Mali, told IRIN from the capital: “Fighting has not yet broken out in Gao [town] but given that it is one of the places the Touaregs want to make part of their republic, I prefer to leave now.”
Mali has been struggling for several years to contain rebel groups in the north, the rising power of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) factions, and widespread contraband traffickers in its northern regions.