Mali is facing its “worst humanitarian crisis for 20 years” due to a combination of food insecurity affecting around three million people, and conflict-induced displacement in the north.
The whereabouts and status of some 93,500 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in northern Mali is uncertain; in addition, 113,000 refugees have fled the north to neighbouring countries.
Between 175,000 and 220,000 children will be acutely malnourished this year and access to northern Mali and refugee destinations across the border is problematic. The current problems are compounded by a perennial lack of real interest in the Sahel.
“Up to now aid agencies have not had great access to these areas… It’s hard to sell this crisis, it’s quite forgotten,” says Helen Caux, West Africa communications head at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
The arrival of so many refugees comes at a difficult time for many of Mali’s neighbouring countries, where nine million people are facing a serious food crisis after a poor harvest in 2011, with severe malnutrition rates in children of more than 15 percent being reported in some areas.
Malians began to flee the north in January when fighting flared up between the Malian army and the Tuareg rebel group, the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad).
Alongside host governments, the UNHCR is leading the refugee response in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania. It says some 113,000 Malians have fled across the border - 40,000 to Mauritania, 23,000 to Burkina Faso (government statistics), and 19,000 to Niger, as well as other destinations.
Initial estimates were higher, partly because many migrants were Nigerien returnees fleeing Mali, and because many Malians have since returned to their villages near the border. Thousands may also have also fled fighting in Tessalit and Aguelhoc to Algeria, but the government, which is not very open to outside help, is leading the response, and UNHCR has no official figures.
Up to 120,000 people in Mali are sheltering with relatives or friends in temporary settlements and host villages in and around areas of conflict such as Ménaka, Kidal - which is currently experiencing hostilities - and Gao, where MNLA rebels are reportedly surrounding the town and shoring up their positions.
Security in the north
The International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC) has serious concerns about accessing the IDPs in more isolated areas of northern Mali, and for the security of its staff. Germain Mwehu, ICRC spokesperson, cited the example of Ménaka, in eastern Mali, which is now held by the MNLA. “Many of those who stayed are living on the periphery of the town. Food and shelter are our priorities and this is in an area very vulnerable to drought,” he told IRIN.
“People in Ménaka are very stressed about not knowing what to do. Should they try to leave for Niger? Should they stay put? Will the conflict resume? Will the government look to stage an offensive?”
Médecins du Monde was forced to scale down its activities in the north due to insecurity, but has since expanded them again. In spite of the insecurity, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) recently opened healthcare programmes around Kidal and Timbuktu. Johanne Sekkenes, head of MSF in the capital, Bamako, said the displaced who are less used to a nomadic existence are the most vulnerable.
The World Food Programme (WFP) is working closely with the ICRC in negotiating and signing agreements with more NGO partners to try to reach the displaced in the north with food aid, said WFP head Nancy Walters. The plan is to try to get aid to 1.2 million Malians, including the displaced - security, funding and access permitting - but thus far WFP has received just 38 percent of its requirements, said Walters.
Animals in camps
According to WFP in Niger, food is being distributed to all the Malian refugees at different sites, but not yet to the local population.
“People are arriving [from Mali] exhausted, hungry and in need of the very basics,” said Chris Palusky, food crisis response manager for Mali and Niger with NGO, World Vision. “But Niger is struggling to cope with the influx of refugees, and the extra strain is pushing families to the brink of survival.”
Most of those who arrived at the three sites near the Niger-Mali border have come from Ménaka, about 50km inside Mali, and many left behind all their possessions, and even their animals.
Regarding those who brought their livestock - a principal source of livelihood to agro-pastoralist Tuaregs - UNHCR is having to rethink its idea of a refugee camp, said Caux, as animals cannot be cooped up in camps.
Urgent solutions are needed as water is scarce: “Up to now, locals have been sharing their wells, but in the long run this will cause problems,” she told IRIN. Much of the available water is not clean and potable water must be brought in by aid agencies.
The plan is to try to separate Malians into those with animals - who will be settled in refugee “sites” which are more flexible - and those without. Many northern Malians are semi-nomadic and do not feel comfortable in settled camps. “It is hard for them to adapt to this environment,” said Caux, noting that many would prefer to stay in border villages, despite the greater potential for insecurity.
Thus far, UNHCR has transported 2,000 of the 4,700 refugees who were sheltering in Sinegodar village near the Mali border, to a camp in Abala, 84km away from the border. Other Malians are staying in Mangaize, where a more permanent site may be built if the government approves it, and in the area around Ayorou.
Most of the Malian refugees in Burkina Faso arrived in the Sahelian provinces of Oudalan and Soum in the drought-hit north, where the National Commission for Refugees (CONAREF) and UNHCR are now leading the response after a significantly slow start-up, said observers.
At a recent press conference, Ousmane Aga Dalla, the head of the government body coordinating assistance to the Malian refugees (CAREM), said there were no major concerns and communities were largely welcoming the refugees, even when there was a temporary interruption the food and emergency funding pipeline.
Despite the myriad problems that agencies face, Caux said she saw some reason for feeling relieved. Although seriously weakened by the journey and having to sleep out in the open air, and facing enormous difficulties in trying to preserve their livelihoods, security and collective future, most of the refugees who arrived were in a relatively decent state of health, said UNHCR and MSF, with no major epidemics having broken out, and few deaths of children en route.