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Q+A-Conditions for Malian refugees set to get tougher as rains near

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 30 May 2012 10:59 GMT
Author: George Fominyen
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DAKAR (AlertNet) – Malian refugees fleeing conflict in the north of their country face tough conditions on arrival in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger with shortages of food aid, water and shelter affecting thousands of people, Refugees International said.

The group, which carried out an assessment of some refugee camps in Burkina Faso and Niger last week, said shelter was a particular concern with rainy season approaching.

Burkina Faso is hosting some 61,000 Malian refugees, Niger 41,000 and Mauritania 64,000, according to the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, while the Algerian government says some 30,000 Malian refugees have crossed into Algeria.

Mark Yarnell, an advocate at Refugees International and a member of the assessment team that visited Burkina Faso and Niger, spoke to AlertNet's George Fominyen about what he saw.

Q: What are the conditions in the refugee camps in Burkina Faso and Niger?

A: There are very tough conditions in the areas where refugees have arrived in Niger and Burkina Faso.  Although food and water inputs are being ramped up quickly, we visited areas where not everyone has access to tents and the rainy season is coming and just the basic issue of getting people to shelter is a concern. 

We are concerned that it may be difficult for food distribution, water trucking and mobile health care systems to be effective during the rainy season given the remote and inaccessible locations of some of these camps. In order not to compromise these vital needs, aid groups must ensure they preposition stocks well in advance of the rains but given how underfunded this crisis currently is, this is quite a concern.

Even if the basics of food and water are going to be provided adequately, there is the long-term problem of thousands of school-aged children that have arrived for four months and haven’t been able to have education. In the camps we visited, only a handful of children have been able to integrate in local school systems, mainly elementary school. Children aged between 12 and 18 who attend secondary school are stranded.

Q: Are there risks of insecurity and violence within the camps?

A: For the moment the general security within the camps is stable.  But the camps are located in insecure areas and close to the Mali border which is very porous and insecure. There is also a concern that since those who fled Mali are from different groups within the Mali population tensions might arise between them the longer they are in a camp setting.

Q: What has been the impact of the influx of refugees on the host communities?

A: It is remarkable and amazing how open and welcoming the local populations has been towards the refugees. But at the same time, this has put an enormous pressure on limited resources at a time when drought and high food prices across the Sahel have led to food insecurity.

For instance, in Abala in Niger there are over 9,000 refugees who have come to a town that had a local population of 10,000. The town itself has enormous challenges with access to water, access to food, limited firewood. The arrival of the refugees has only led to upward pressure on food prices contributing to challenging access to food.  One woman told me that the price of flour had shot up from FCFA 350 to 750 per kilo.

Q: How are aid organisations coping?

A: It’s a complex situation for aid organisations that had been gearing up to respond to a food insecurity crisis across the Sahel. Then refugees arrive and they have to handle two crises. UNHCR didn’t have a presence in Burkina Faso and Niger and so, to all of a sudden move to respond to the needs of tens of thousands of refugees has been quite impressive. Yet, it is evident that much remains to be done.

Aid organisations have had to make tough decisions given that there has been limited funding around for the response to this crisis. Do they focus on the general populations of Niger and Burkina Faso that are food insecure? Do they focus only on the refugees or do they try to help the local communities that are impacted by the arrival of the refugees? It is a tough situation for all.  

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