DAKAR (AlertNet) – Two United Nations agencies have launched a regional emergency operation to assist more than half a million people uprooted by conflict in Mali, the U.N. World Food Programme said in a statement on Tuesday.
The WFP operation aims to assist 300,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) and 255,000 refugees this year. The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will serve as the WFP’s primary partner in this response, which will cost around $77 million.
“We are working side by side with UNHCR to help families who have been forced from their homes in Mali and now need urgent food and shelter,” said WFP executive director Ertharin Cousin.
“The refugees from Mali have fled conflict in their own country, and now find themselves across the border in neighbouring states that are already suffering from the severe effects of a regional drought,” Cousin said in the statement.
Violence erupted in Mali in mid-January when Tuareg-led rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad launched a bid to create an independent state in the country’s desert.
Taking advantage of the chaos after a March 22 military coup ousted Mali’s elected president in the capital Bamako, a mix of separatist and Islamist rebels seized the northern two-thirds of the country in early April.
Although the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has brokered several deals for a peaceful transition under civilian rule the situation in Mali remains precarious, analysts say.
The country’s interim president Dioncounda Traore suffered minor head injuries Monday when protesters stormed the presidential palace and beat him. It was the latest setback for efforts to stabilise Mali after the coup and deal with a subsequent revolt by northern separatists and Islamists.
Protesters occupied the presidential palace for several hours during a street demonstration in Bamako called by local politicians. They want the coup leaders to return to power and accuse Traore of being part of a self-serving political elite responsible for decades of misrule.
Aid agencies say the conflict and political instability are delaying assistance to those Malians who have fled to the south of the country. In Mali, some 3.5 million people are facing starvation.
"Vulnerable displaced families living in drought-affected host communities are stretching very limited resources," Lily Sanya, the head of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Mali said in a statement on Tuesday.
IOM appealed for $3.5 million to provide immediate life-saving assistance to internally displaced Malians who have sought shelter in the capital Bamako, the northern river port city of Mopti and the western city of Kayes.
The hunger situation is part of the wider crisis in the Sahel region – a semi-arid belt of land south of the Sahara desert – where the United Nations estimates that more than 15 million people are facing food insecurity because of a combination of drought, failed crops, insect infestations and high food prices.
The influx of refugees from Mali has exacerbated the severe and large-scale food crisis in the Sahel, with at least three countries hit by the hunger problems - Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger - hosting the bulk of Malians who have fled their country.
“The Sahel represents a deadly combination of drought and displacement by conflict. This is not only a dramatic humanitarian problem but it has become a threat to global peace and security,” Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement
Aid agencies have been calling for international financial support to tackle the complex crisis unfolding in the Sahel. WFP’s overall Sahel emergency operation, aiming to support nearly 10 million people, is facing a $360 million shortfall.
If no new food or cash contributions are received immediately, the resulting inability to pre-position and distribute enough food during the lean summer months would be catastrophic for the most vulnerable, food insecure people – especially women and children, Cousin warned.
“Time is not on our side,” she said.