UNHCR boosts aid as outflow of refugees from Mali doubles in size

Zoulfa, a mother of four, was forced to flee after armed rebels attacked her village. With little more than a few belongings and her goats, she faced no other option but to flee to Niger to ensure her children's safety. 

 

As of February 17, more than 44,000 people have fled the month-long violence in northern Mali, with arrival numbers in the region doubling in the last 10 days. This exodus could increase amid reports of fighting in areas bordering Algeria.

"In northern Niger, we have had reports of significant new arrivals over the weekend  most from the Anderboukane and Menaka areas of Mali. At this stage, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) does not have confirmed numbers for overall arrivals from Mali in Niger, but from available estimates we know there are multiples of thousands," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva.

Since clashes started in Mali on January 17 between the Tuareg rebels and the Malian army, neighboring countries have reported a steady influx of refugees. More than 18,000 are in Mauritania, 18,000 in Niger and over 8,000 in Burkina Faso. The total number has doubled compared to the 22,000 recorded on February 7.

There are reports of conflict erupting in recent days in Tessalit and Tinezewadern near the border with Algeria, which might prompt more people to flee Mali to neighboring countries.

"As the influx continues, our teams are stepping up assistance for refugees who have taken refuge in makeshift shelters in villages bordering Mali," said UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming at a Friday press briefing in Geneva. "Humanitarian assistance is all the more critical because the Sahel region is facing a severe food crisis due to several years of drought."

In Mauritania, the UN Refugee Agency's emergency response team is coordinating the distribution of food and other critical aid to 5,000 refugees. The agency has purchased 15-day food rations for an additional 8,000 refugees, and is trucking water to refugee-hosting areas and transporting emergency medical supplies provided by partners.

On Friday, UNHCR teams started revamping Mbéra camp which had hosted Tuareg refugees in the 1990s. The site still has several water points and structures that will be renovated for schools and health centers.

"In Niger, two charter flights landed Thursday night in the capital Niamey, with 2,500 tents from our stockpile in Douala, Cameroon, 500 of which will be transported on to Burkina Faso," said UNHCR's Fleming. "Trucks with relief assistance are expected to arrive in Niamey and Ouagadougou from our stockpile in Accra, Ghana." 

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Zoulfa rests in her makeshift shelter in Gaoudel, Ayorou district, northern Niger. © UNHCR/H. Caux

On Wednesday, UNHCR staff traveled to northern Niger's Ayorou district, where more than 2,000 recent arrivals are scattered across arid border villages. Among them was 40-year-old Zoulfa, who fled Souggan village in eastern Mali with her family.

"One morning, we got up and realized that all the authorities had left. We got scared. Some armed men entered the village and stole our possessions and cattle. They shot in the air but did not target us," she recalled. "We left because of the insecurity but also because of the lack of food in Mali."

Zoulfa's husband stayed at the border with their cattle, while she brought their four children, a donkey and some goats to Gaoudel, 6 miles from the border in Ayorou district. They are currently living in a makeshift shelter, where the children are covered in dust.

"It is very windy during the day and cold at night. My two-month-old baby Djamila has fever," said Zoulfa. "We go and collect water in the Niger river, nearly 2 miles away from here."

In Burkina Faso, the refugees are staying mainly in makeshift camps in the north of the country as well as with host families or rented accommodation in the capital Ouagadougou.

Fighting between the Tuareg liberation movement MNLA (Mouvement National de Liberation de l'Azawad) and government forces resumed in mid-January in Mali, breaking a 2009 agreement that had officially ended the Tuareg rebellion.

By Hélène Caux, in Gaoudel, Ayorou district, Niger

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