DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The overwhelming majority of refugees who fled the conflict in northern Mali were unable to vote in the first round of the presidential election because their identity cards had not reached them, according to a report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Of 73,000 refugees now in Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso who were eligible to vote, only 1,313 took part in the country’s first election since a military coup 18 months ago.
Within Mali, there was a record turnout in the July 28 first round of over 50 percent of the 6.9 million electorate, and international observers have broadly reported the election as being free and fair, despite minor procedural flaws.
The UNHCR report, passed to aid organisations and embassies, said the main reason for the low turnout among refugees was that many of those who had registered with the UNHCR had been unable to get their NINA (Numero d'Identité Nationale) cards in time to vote.
“The key reason for the low voter figure as compared with those who had registered was the NINA voter card, which according to Malian law, is required to be able actually to vote,” the report said.
“The cards were apparently sent initially to original places of residence and then had to find their way to the voter. Some did officially reach the countries of asylum through diplomatic representations; some informally through family members and friends; while some refugees went back to Mali to pick theirs up; and yet others returned to the country to vote there,” the report said.
But those who managed to retrieve their cards accounted for only a small number of the 10,217 refugees found on the electoral roll - another requirement for eligibity to vote.
The Malian refugee vote will have little impact on the result of the presidential election, but their inclusion is seen as critical for the post-election reconciliation process.
In Burkina Faso, where 3,504 refugees have registered with the UNHCR, only 85 out of the 876 on the electoral roll managed to vote.
In Niger, where 4,161 refugees have registered with the UNHCR, 323 refugees were able to vote out of 932 found on the electoral roll.
The Malian ambassador in Niger had proposed that the refugees be allowed to vote if they had any form of Mali-issued ID, but the Malian authorities were adamant that only those with NINA cards could take part in the election.
In Mauritania, where over 11,000 refugees have settled, the UNHCR had to facilitate the transport of the NINA cards to the camp "virtually at the last minute." In the end, 811 refugees out of 8,409 who registered to vote there took part in the election.
"It was clear that if UNHCR did not support the delivery of the cards, they were bound not to arrive in time for the refugees to be able to take part in the vote,” the report said.
Diplomats and officials say that little has been done to improve refugee participation in the second round of the election, due on Aug. 11, when Ibrahim Boubacar Kéita (IBK) will take on Soumaïla Cissé for the presidency.
The U.N. Mission for the Stabilisation of Mali (MINUSMA) has committed itself to helping the Malian authorities ensure the NINA cards reach their owners, Mathijs le Rutte, Deputy West Africa Director of UNHCR, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“MINUSMA have committed to tracking down the NINA cards within Mali and transporting them to the refugees in Mauritania, but the logistics of the operation are still to be worked out. We’re also trying to make sure that the refugees in Niger and Burkina Faso receive the same service,” he said.
“What the press has not reported is that of those refugees that could vote, the overwhelming majority did vote, which shows a great willingness to take part in the election,” said le Rutte.