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The current situation facing Malian refugees in the Sahel: some operational ideas for a prolonged emergency situation
Valérie Léon

With renewed political instability in Mali since the end of May 2014 and humanitarian funding related to the Mali crisis on the decrease since 2013, it seems difficult to develop mid/long-term strategies for humanitarian response and resilience. Following three field visits to camps in Burkina Faso (Goudebo), Niger (Tillabéri and Intekane), and Mauritania (Mbera), the present article explores operational ideas to respond to the current challenges of prolonged exile for Malian refugees in the Sahel.

It is highly probable that a large number of Malian refugees are currently in neighbouring countries (Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger) in areas which are remote, arid, under-developed and subject to recurring food crises (2005, 2010 and 2012). These Malian refugees belong to different ethnic groups: mainly Tuareg, Songhai and Arab [1], but also Hausa, Fula and Bambara.

During 2014, the number of returns has slowed and the recent events in Mali have led to more population displacement [2]. Following the clashes between the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) and the Malian government (in the region of Kidal, May 2014), refugee leaders (notably those of the Mbera camp in Mauritania) expressed their reticence about going home, as they had been doing already for several months. The lack of desire to go home is due in great part to the current negotiation process and the lack of guarantees for a safe return (security and basic services) [3].

In short, the humanitarian context in which the Malian refugees currently find themselves is characterized by:

  • The complex and multi-factor nature of the crisis, involving food shortages and conflict.
  • The decrease in funding for the Sahel.
  • The non-resolution of the conflict and the lack of stable institutions in North Mali, which means there is a risk of extended exile for the Malian refugees.
  • Recurring signs of imminent new food crises in certain areas of the Sahel.

As a result, humanitarian actors are faced with a number of issues which require different operational methods:

  • The consolidation of the emergency phase and of the economic security of the refugees, with a view to their return or the prolonging of their exile;
  • The strengthening of people’s resilience in a context of chronic food insecurity;
  • The preparation of contingency plans in the case of a new influx of Malian refugees.

[1] The latest individual records gave the following distribution in Niger (February 2014): 79% (Tuaregs), 12 % (Songhais), 2 % (Arabs) and in Burkina Faso (June 2014): 77 % (Tuaregs), 11 % (Arabs), 2 % (Songhais). In July 2013, in Mauritania, the majority of refugees were Arabs (54%) and Tuaregs (45%).

[2] http://unhcrniger.tumblr.com/post/92821414219/relocalisation-des-nouveaux-refugies-maliens-dagando-a

[3] Groupe URD, “Study on governance in areas with low population density in North Mali”, October 2013-February 2014. Cf. http://www.urd.org/Study-on-governance-in-areas-with,1832