Aid agencies are struggling to cope with Mali refugees

  • @emilydugan

Aid agencies are struggling to cope with the scale of the humanitarian crisis in West Africa caused by thousands of Malians fleeing conflict, according to a study out this week.

Oxfam will publish a report on Tuesday detailing the failure of aid organisations to deal adequately with the fallout from the escalating conflict in the region. The charity says that basic needs, such as nutrition, protection and education are not being met.

In the four days following the start of the French assault on January 10th, at least 10,000 Malians have abandoned their homes, joining the 375,000 people who have already been displaced by the unrest. The UN refugee agency predicts that another 710,000 people will be forced to flee because of the conflict.

The civilian death toll from the conflict is still unknown - largely because humanitarian groups have been blocked from going into the conflict areas since French involvement in military operations.

Oxfam found that logistical challenges, the limited experience of in-country humanitarian organisations in dealing with emergencies and a small presence of the UN’s refugee agency in the region at the start of the crisis have all meant the response has been slow and insufficient.

There are now more than 55,000 refugees in Mauritania, 53,000 in Burkina Faso, and an estimated 1,500 in Algeria, and some camps are already said to be dangerously overcrowded.

Ilaria Allegrozzi, a policy manager for Oxfam in Mali, said: “Basic needs are not being covered in an equal way, particularly with regard to education, nutrition and protection. That’s what we’ve observed in the camps. In Niger, malnutrition rates, particularly among children are very high.”

Malnutrition rates amongst children under-five in Niger’s refugee camps are now at 21 per cent - way above the the threshold of 15 per cent, which the World Health Organisation uses to declare an emergency.

With so many more refugees expected in the coming months, Oxfam says those distributing aid need to adapt their programmes rapidly to better support host communities and those displaced. In many places the huge influx of refugees has put a strain on local people who were already struggling on limited resources. In the town of Bassikounou in Mauritania, for example, the town’s population of 42,000 is now dwarfed by the 54,000-strong camp nearby.

Tom McCormack, director of Save The Children’s programme in Mali, said the country : “Violence in any country is nasty, but because this is one of the poorest countries in the world, people who are displaced are stretched to the limit. Even in the good years in Mali, many people have nothing to fall back on. Last year we had the double whammy of these political problems, coupled with a food shortage. It created a lot of misery.”

The medical relief charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said on Friday it was being blocked access to Konna by both sides in the conflict. The charity said it was trying to send a medical team to the area to assess the needs and to deliver medical and humanitarian assistance.

“Despite our repeated requests, the authorities continue to refuse to grant us access to the area of Konna,” Malik Allaouna, MSF operations director, said. “It is critical that neutral, impartial medical and humanitarian aid be allowed into the areas affected by fighting. We call on all parties to the conflict to respect both the civilian populations and the work of humanitarian organisations.”

He continued: “MSF has been working in Mali for several months now, both in areas controlled by the army and in areas controlled by the various armed groups in the north of the country. But since the Malian and French forces began their offensive, we have not been able to cross the front lines despite our neutrality. Entire regions are now cut off from outside aid.”