Food for refugees will run out in September

Agencies cannot cope with the scale of refugee needs in camps across Mali, as their funding shortfalls are too great: 36 percent at the World Food Programme (WFP) 66 percent in UN refugee agency (UNHCR), and 58 percent for the overall response. If additional funding does not come soon, food will run out in September.

Longer-term planning for refugee needs in 2013 is “unthinkable”, say aid workers. Just 20 percent of the US$153 million needed by UNHCR to help the approximately 249,000 Malian refugees in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger and other neighbouring states, has been met.

Some 53,000 Malians fled to Niger, 96,000 to Mauritania and a further 174,000 are displaced within Mali, according to UNHCR.

UNHCR estimates that 107,929 refugees - up from 56,000 in May - are now spread across five official (and nine unofficial) sites in Burkina Faso, mainly in Damba, Sérélio, Mentao, (Sahel), Somgandé at Ouagadougou, and Bobo-Dioulasso in the west. However, others estimate lower numbers - a census is underway to determine an accurate figure.

WFP has enough food for 60,000 Malians until the end of September, said its head in Burkina Faso, Angelline Rudakubana. “After that, it will be really tough.” She estimates that at least 77,000 refugees need food aid, but other estimates put the figure much higher.

“We need to buy the food now,” said Rudakubana, because it takes “at least” three months to get food to landlocked Burkina Faso.

Northern Malians are struggling with the standard WFP rations, as they are used to a nutrient-rich diet dominated by milk, meat and tea, but there is nothing the food agency can do about this.

There are lots of other gaps besides food, said Francoise Kaboré, media coordinator at NGO Plan International in the capital, Ouagadougou. “Water and sanitation, housing - it’s very difficult… there are some camps that are harder to reach and are not getting enough aid at all,” she told IRIN.

Refugees living in Damba camp in Soum, in the Sahel zone, told IRIN that without water points or shelter, they and their animals share villagers’ shallow wells, and sleep under basic straw structures. “Here we have no water, no food and no house… nothing is good here,” nine-year-old Fati, from Timbuktu, told Plan International.

“We’re doing what we can but we don’t have all the money we need,” said Kaboré. Plan International works in protection, emergency education, water and sanitation, and non-food item distribution, which are collectively just 19 percent funded.

Photo: Plan International
Malian children in a temporary school set up by Plan International and UNICEF

Altakwa, a mother in Damba camp in Soum, told Plan: “Our biggest worry is the health of our children. They don’t eat enough and are exposed to new dangers, we’re scared for them.”

On top of these concerns, some 2.5 million Burkinabe in the Sahel face hunger this year. Severe drought in 2011 resulted in a poor harvest and scant pasture growth, and has now brought high food prices.

NGO Oxfam, which alongside UNHCR has set up most of the water facilities, said after a difficult start, things are starting to “stabilize”, with most refugees receiving 12-15 litres of water per day, meeting the international Sphere standard.

“We may be okay, as long as we don’t have a big influx [of more people]” said Konate Papa Sosthene, water and sanitation specialist at Oxfam.

Some 30-50 Malians are crossing the border each week, which is fewer than in April and May, said UNHCR’s senior field coordinator, Nasir Fernandes. Ag Gala, the chairman of a refugee coordination group in Ouagadougou, told IRIN, “Every day I receive calls that there are more people at the border, fleeing the living conditions and oppression.”

Many are pastoralists who have arrived with desperately weak, often sick animals. “They need vaccinations, medication for their animals - not many people are working in this area,” said Sosthene.

Agencies want to shift into the intermediate response phase - build more durable housing and latrines, for instance - but they do not have enough money. “Refugees are bound to stay until 2013,” warned Sosthene.

Long-term priorities include mediation, as in months to come pastoralists trapped in the country will be forced to bring their animals nearer camps and agricultural land, risking conflict between them and farmers, warns the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Agencies will also need to find a solution for the thousands of secondary school children and university students currently living ni cam[ps. Plan International, other NGOs, and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have opened pre- and primary schools in camps to educate 30,000 children, but the money will not stretch to secondary schools. “It is very difficult for these students,” said Kobaré.

There is no refugee education cluster or funding appeal ongoing in Burkina Faso. “Education is neglected. We need to act now to avoid creating a battalion of children fighters,” Thierry Agagliate of NGO Terres des Hommes, told IRIN.

Education is often not seen by donors as being life-saving. ''We have prioritized five life-saving sections, which include health, water, sanitation, food and shelter,” said Fernandes, “and we have not yet met 100 percent of the needs in these activities.''

After a trip to refugee camps two weeks ago, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, and US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, Anne Richard, called on donors to take more “determined action” to help the Sahel.

The refugees are still waiting.