DAKAR (AlertNet) - The international community must urgently aid tens of thousands of people who have fled fighting in northern Mali and prevent their displacement from burdening host communities already hit by food insecurity, an official of the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has said.
Dozens have been reported killed since National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA rebels), who say they are fighting to create an independent north, boosted by ethnic Tuareg allies who returned to Mali after fighting for Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, started attacking towns and army bases in January.
More than 55,000 people have fled Mali into neighbouring Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso while another 60,000 are internally displaced within Mali since fighting erupted, the official said.
“They are arriving in areas where drought, water shortages and food security issues already stretch the local people,” Helen Caux, UNHCR spokeswoman for West Africa told AlertNet.
UNHCR is expected to issue an appeal for international assistance this week, Caux said.
Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Mali are experiencing food shortages after drought, erratic rainfall and insect infestations led to poor harvests across West Africa’s semi-arid Sahel region that runs south of the Sahara desert.
More than 11 million people are facing hunger across the region including 5.5 million in Niger alone, according to the United Nations.
“It is important that the international community takes care of the refugees otherwise they would become an additional burden to the local population,” Caux added, on the phone from Niger’s capital Niamey.
Most of the refugees are living in makeshift shelters along the borders between Mali and the neighboring countries where they have sought refuge, but the U.N. agency intends to move them further inwards into neighbouring countries for security reasons.
Border areas are considered very volatile and there is always a risk of armed groups easily crossing over and potentially intimidating refugees, Caux said.
In Niger, where there are currently more than 23,000 Malian refugees, UNHCR has identified a site in the Ouallam district, about an hour north of the capital Niamey, where it intends to set up a refugee camp.
“Hopefully it should be ready in the next two weeks and we can start moving people,” Caux said.
This would grant people better shelter and improved access to water, sanitation and healthcare, she added.
Several U.N. agencies and non-governmental aid groups are providing initial assistance to the refugees.
UNHCR is set to distribute 2,000 tents to refugees in Niger and 500 to refugees in Burkina Faso.
The Swiss arm of medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is providing healthcare services including delivering babies and vaccination campaigns in the Sinegodar area, about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the Malian border in northern Niger.
MSF is also operating in Mali and Burkina Faso and plans to expand to other parts of Niger where there are refugees, said Fabien Schneider, the group’s Geneva-based programme officer for Niger.
Meanwhile, children’s charity Plan International has been distributing food items to over 1,000 families in Niger’s Tillabery region.
“We are also supporting the families with some school materials to enable the children to resume school with one of the teachers who has also sought refuge,” said Berenger Berehoudougou, Plan International’s regional disaster risk manager in Dakar, Senegal.
(Editing by Maria Caspani and Rebekah Curtis)