Most of the Malian refugees are women and children. This group in Niger are waiting for aid being distributed by UNHCR and its partners. © UNHCR/H. Caux.
In a press release, UNHCR said the money was needed for its operations this year in Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. In February, it had called on donors for $35.6 million to cover the period up to July 2012.
Following a Tuareg uprising that began in mid-January, a deepening crisis due to a coup d'état in March and the proliferation of armed groups in northern Mali, close to 320,000 Malians have been forced to flee to neighboring Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger or seek refuge in safer parts of Mali.
"The sharp degeneration of the situation in Mali, which has led to the flight and continued forced displacement of a huge number of Malians in such a short time, is totally unexpected," said Liz Ahua, UNHCR's deputy director for West Africa, Central Africa and the Great Lakes region.
UNHCR needs the increased funding for its field operations to help 240,000 refugees and 200,000 internally displaced Malians until the end of the year. The earlier appeal in February covered the needs of 85,000 people until July.
Malians continue to flee to surrounding countries amid reports of serious human rights violations in northern Mali, including abductions, arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings as well as sexual- and gender-based violence.
The majority of the refugees are women and children. They are settled in remote locations where the local communities are already facing food insecurity and severe water shortages due to years of drought in the Sahel region. Acute malnutrition rates among children under five years old are alarming, particularly in refugee sites in Mauritania and Niger, and there is an urgent need to increase water supply and improve sanitary conditions.
Despite the desperate humanitarian situation in the Sahel, UNHCR has only received 13% of the $153.7 million needed. "UNHCR is grateful to donors for the support received so far. However, our current funding level is woefully inadequate," the press release said, adding: "We desperately need more funds now, ahead of the rainy season, which starts in June and is often marked by flooding."
Ahua said UNHCR must preposition urgently needed aid close to the refugee-hosting areas or face a disaster in sites likely to be cut off by floodwaters.
"Working in the Sahel region also makes the Mali situation one of UNHCR's most challenging operations in Africa because refugees and the internally displaced are in areas where insecurity, banditry and threats of kidnapping make it impossible for us to establish an office presence and deploy field staff as close to the refugees as we would like," the press release said.
UNHCR has already chartered several emergency airlifts carrying vital relief, providing shelter, food rations and survival kits to the thousands flooding into Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. The humanitarian assistance is all the more critical because of a severe food crisis in the Sahel region due to several years of drought.