The aid effort to help over 147,000 Malian refugees could be overwhelmed as conflict escalates, unless there is a significant shift in the way aid operations are carried out, international agency Oxfam has warned.
With aid agencies already struggling to meet all refugees' basic needs, Oxfam says it is extremely concerned about the conditions faced by Malians who have fled their homes over the last year and are living in neighbouring countries. Host communities in these countries were already struggling to deal with food shortages and the consequences of drought and food crisis last year.
With the escalation of the conflict, including an offensive by armed groups controlling the north, the recent intervention of French and Malian armed forces and with the UN mandated African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) operation set to be deployed, Oxfam is warning in a new report that the already dire situation for tens of thousands of Malians could get much worse.
Since January of last year, over 147,000 civilians have fled northern Mali and found refuge in neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. In its report, “Mali's Conflict Refugees: Responding to a Growing Crisis”, Oxfam says that Malian refugees also face a number of threats including forced recruitment by armed groups crossing from northern Mali.
Even before the recent escalation in fighting, the report highlights that insecurity was increasing in host countries, leaving refugees and host populations at great risk. There are also thousands of people in southern Mali newly displaced during the most recent outbreak of fighting – in addition to nearly 220,000 people displaced over the last year. Limited information from the north means there could be many more people who have left their homes but remain in territory held by armed groups.
“After nearly a year of assisting tens of thousands of people across four countries in extremely tough conditions, the aid community is struggling to meet their needs. It is paramount now that we ensure that aid will continue to be provided to people who are leaving everything behind,” said Mamadou Biteye, Oxfam West Africa Regional Director. “We call on countries neighbouring Mali to continue to keep their borders open to allow refugees a safe haven, and for the UN to show the leadership that is needed to deal with the impact of this conflict on Malian refugees and their hosts.”
Oxfam also points to the difficulties in responding to the crisis over the last months. Host governments and communities, and humanitarian organisations have provided vital assistance to refugees, but the scale-up has been slow due to logistical challenges, limited experience of in-country humanitarian organisations in dealing with refugee emergencies, and a small UNHCR presence in the region in the early days of the response.
Almost one year since the start of the conflict in the north of Mali “basic needs are still not uniformly covered, particularly with regard to nutrition, protection, and education,” Oxfam’s report says.
“Operating a major refugee response in the Sahel region is extremely difficult and it is clear that it will become even harder if there is a significant influx of refugees into Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger. At the same time, in Mali, those who have not made it out also need access to life saving aid. All those involved in the conflict need to ensure that we have access to the areas where these people are,” said Caroline Baudot, author of the report.
The aid agency highlights child malnutrition rates in some refugee camps that are already well above the 15 per cent emergency threshold set by the World Health Organisation. For example in Niger, malnutrition rates among children under five years stand at 21 per cent.
Oxfam says that ahead of a probable increase in refugee flows, aid groups need to rapidly adapt their programmes to better support host communities and pastoralist refugees – who have arrived with tens of thousands of cattle putting further pressure on limited resources and igniting tensions with local communities. At some sites, the report says, refugees outnumber host populations, such as in Mauritania where in Bassikounou – a town of some 42,000 inhabitants – there are now 54,000 refugees at a nearby camp.
“What people want is to be able to go home. But refugees are clear that after decades of being displaced, they will not go back unless there is a lasting-peace in Mali. Ultimately, they tell us, the real causes of Mali’s conflict need to be solved before they return,” concluded Aime Lukelo, Oxfam’s Country Director in Mauritania.