The United Nations is expecting a fresh humanitarian upheaval in Mali as people who have been living since last spring in refugee camps in neighboring nations in West Africa or who relocated to the capital, Bamako, start streaming back to their homes in the north of the country.
Nearly 380,000 Malians fled to camps or to Bamako after Islamic extremists captured the region from ethnic Tuaregs in spring 2012, which also coincided about the same time with a Mali Army coup. Now the UN says that thousands of more people up north, having abandoned their homes since French and Mali military strikes began this month, will also return, requiring urgent help.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is already struggling to finance operations to care for the people who have been displaced internally and residing in neighboring countries in camps. The agency is facing worst straits in Syria, where the 22-month-old civil war has generated hundreds of thousands of homeless people, whose needs are more acute than those in Mali because of sheer numbers and harsher weather.
The refugee agency requested $123 million for its operations in Mali in 2012 but received only $76 million. So far this year, the agency has met just 6 percent of its $112 million financing request.
The French interceded on Jan.11 in central Mali with airstrikes and combat troops, fighting alongside the Mali Army to prevent the jihadists from possibly overtaking Bamako in the south and ultimately the whole country. The extremists had made a surprising assault on a small town, Konna, near the de facto border within Mali, about 11 hours from the capital. Since the French arrived, repelling the Islamists throughout the north in the last few weeks, thousands of new refugees have flooded the camps in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria.
The assault against members of Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb and other terrorist bands (including defected Malian Army officers) is moving at a fast pace with limited firsthand journalistic coverage. Movement around the north by media has been restricted through tight checkpoints, though some French press are embedded with the military. Generally, journalists have been able to travel only into small, central Malian towns that the French bombed and then secured, such as Douentza.
The UN may send a peacekeeping force to Mali instead of relying on a regional African troop contingent being organized in Bamako to take on the fight against the rebels. Some members of the Security Council are unsure of the African troops’ ability to stop the extremists, who are well armed.
Meanwhile, refugees may begin returning to northern Mali, now that it appears to be liberated from the insurgents, who imposed a severe form of Sharia law where they operated. “There’s always the possibility that there could be cross-border movements that could put the refugees and the humanitarian workers at risk,” Helene Caux, a UNHCR field media officer in Bamako, said by phone.
It has been nearly impossible for the UN to help civilians in the north who have left their homes because it is unable to get in there, Caux added, saying, “We’re working with different actors now to get that access, but it’s very frustrating to be confined in Bamako.”
Women and children make up the majority of refugees in the camps, where basic needs “are still not uniformly covered either, particularly with regard to nutrition, protection and education,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi in an e-mail to PassBlue. Allegrozzi is the Oxfam Mali policy and campaign manager in Burkina Faso.
Allegrozzi added that in Niger’s camps, up to 21 percent of the children are malnourished, while others suffer from respiratory infections and diarrhea.
To improve conditions, the UN needs to improve data collection and analysis, said Caroline Baudot, a humanitarian policy adviser for Oxfam. “The UNHCR should ensure that camp refugee committees consult with and represent the interest of all groups, especially women,” Baudot said from Ethiopia in an e-mail to PassBlue.
Caux said that with the refugee agency’s budget shortage for Mali, it has been impossible to meet all the refugees’ needs.
“To build camps you need money,” she said. “This has been one of our main struggles in 2012.”
“The response we’re getting from refugees is that they want to go back as soon as possible, that they had a better life in Mali,” Caux added. “But they won’t return until it’s secure.”
In Syria, the number is rising daily in terms of refugees and internally displaced civilians. Inside Syria, the people are “weary and despairing,” John Ging, the director of operations for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said at a press conference in New York on Jan. 28. He had returned from a short mission in the country to assess the situation from a humanitarian standpoint. The people need medicine, most of all, with food a runner-up and other essentials like blankets and plastic to cover their open windows. More than two million people have been left without homes inside Syria, while more than four million people, including refugees, require some degree of help, Ging said. Three-quarters of the refugees are women and children.
A donor conference held by the UN in Kuwait on Jan. 30 elicited $1.5 billion in pledges, as requested, to improve conditions inside Syria and refugee camps in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pledged to contribute about $300,000 million each, having been reassured that their money will not end up in the Syrian government’s hands.
The conference relieved, for the next six months, pressure on the regular donors – the United States, Britain, Canada, Japan, Australia and other European nations. The US, however, has announced a donation of $155 million in humanitarian aid, bringing the total American help to the crisis to $365 million.
Lorraine Boissoneault is a graduate student at the Columbia University School of Journalism, with a magazine concentration. She has reported on immigration issues, public housing and the waterfront environment, and her articles have been published in The Brooklyn Paper, City Limits and Narratively.
Boissoneault is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where she earned a B.A. in international studies and English/creative writing. She speaks French and conversational Mandarin and has studied Arabic and Italian.