LONDON (AlertNet) - Thousands more Malians have become refugees since France began military operations against Islamic rebels in the north of the country – fleeing to neighbouring countries already struggling to provide earlier waves of refugees with food and water, aid agencies say.
Since Jan. 11, Mauritania has received 4,208 Malians, Niger 1,300 and Burkina Faso 1,829, bringing the total number of Malian refugees in neighbouring states to 147,000, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said.
Fear of being killed in air strikes and fighting or being subjected to sharia, Islamic law, have prompted many to make the arduous journey across Mali's borders. Some refugees have been able to flee by car or truck while others escaped on foot or by donkey.
The UNHCR said many newly arrived Malians, reporting increasing shortages of food and fuel back home, were expecting more family members to join them in the next few days.
Yet what they face are dire conditions in refugee camps located in insecure border areas, aid agency Oxfam said in a report highlighting the shortcomings of the humanitarian response to the growing refugee crisis.
"In Niger's refugee camps, up to 21 percent of the children are malnourished, 6 percentage points above the World Health Organization's threshold for 'emergency' levels," Oxfam said, adding that malnutrition rates were also "alarmingly high" among child refugees in Mauritania.
Oxfam also criticised the current humanitarian response, saying aid groups needed urgently to change their programmes to address the needs of local communities.
Most communities are still recovering from last year's food crisis, and in some areas Malian refugees outnumber the host population, creating resentment among local people.
Aid groups also need to come up with a more effective way of dealing with refugees who are nomadic herders. Oxfam said some pastoralist refugees had arrived with tens of thousands of cattle, igniting tension with local communities.
The situation for Malians back home seems equally bleak.
Plan International said aid agencies were unable to reach tens of thousands of displaced Malians and those trapped in areas where the fighting was fiercest.
The conflict is also preventing farmers from sowing their crops, adding to fears that up to 2 million people will face food shortages this year, the charity said.
"Farmers usually start preparing their fields in February, however, in the current climate it means that many of them are not able to work and this will have a big impact on food production," Plan's Mali country director, William Michelet, said in a statement.
The International Displacement Monitoring Centre said there were reports that armed groups were stopping people from northern Mali from seeking refuge in the south. In its report, "Nowhere to run: Fleeing Malians struggle to find safety and assistance", it also said that Mauritania had stepped up its military presence along the border to deter refugees.
France, which has made 140 bombing sorties since Jan. 11, plans eventually to hand over the military operation to a U.N.-backed African mission, but the deployment of such a force has been hampered by a lack of supplies, funds and training.