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


 Preserving peaceful cohabitation, by generating development gains for the host communities

In general, cohabitation with the local population is deemed to be “excellent” by the refugee leaders, notably as it is based on socio-cultural and even family ties.

Around the refugee hosting areas in Niger, the local population have access to free healthcare in the health centres supported by UNHCR within the host areas. This has made peaceful cohabitation possible when refugees have been relocated (from areas over the Malian border), as have other development-type projects such as the rehabilitation of a drilling site, or a dam, or the setting up of a water conveyance system. Indeed, it seems that a certain number of nomadic families in the region have “settled” in the village near the refugee hosting area.

However, in certain contexts, the chronic vulnerability of local communities could soon reveal problems in terms of aid equality and generate protests, like those that took place in the Mbera camp in Mauritania in 2012 and 2013 during the registration and the removal of a large number of people from the assistance register (which were also due to changes in the distribution method).

To avoid such incidents, parallel efforts should be made to contribute to the recovery and resilience of the local communities who suffered from the last food crisis in 2012 and remain chronically insecure. Indeed, another food crisis can not be completely excluded given the low level of improvement of malnutrition indicators in certain geographic areas [10].

In hosting areas, the presence of refugees and their herds, which are sometimes very big, as well as a certain “fixing” of the local population, combine to create additional pressure on natural resources (water, pasture, etc.) which may cause tension in the medium term.

Operational issues therefore include the supply of water [11], the use of pastureland and waste management, both for refugees and the local population. This is why several activities have been carried out in and around the camps, such as: the rehabilitation and construction of drilling sites, the establishment and/or reinforcement of water management committees, awareness-raising campaigns about hygiene and public health, etc.

Around the Mbera camp (Mauritania) for example, pressure on water resources is particularly high in areas (more than 20 km from the camp) where there are some pastoral wells and where there is a concentration of Mauritanian and Malian herds which are estimated to be 35 000 and 180 000 (!) strong respectively [12].

In the future, aid programmes will have to aim for integrated and strategic management of environmental resources (water and pasture), based on more detailed knowledge of pasturelands and water tables, such as where they are located and how they are regenerated, land ownership rights and the social management systems that are associated with them.

At the national level, and in consultation with United Nations agencies and the political authorities, the HCR contributes to drawing up action plans which will facilitate the transition to mid- to long-term solutions, with the objective of conflict prevention and peaceful cohabitation between refugees, returnees and host communities (who are often herders, like the majority of Malian Tuaregs). To support the mobilization of funds by the host country, the HCR is involved in a regional initiative called Conflict Prevention and Peaceful Cohabitation which was presented in Nouakchott in April 2014.

With a view to return processes of this kind (spontaneous and initially facilitated), the HCR and its partners underline the importance of the needs of host populations who have taken in the refugees and immediately shared their meagre resources, and who continue to face the difficult living conditions in this region of the Sahel (water, food security, health and education).

The HCR is certainly at a pivotal moment when the emergency response needs to open the door to mid- to long-term actions in order to build resilience. This transition movement will have to take place in close collaboration with the government, the regional authorities, the local technical services and development organizations.

In addition, as part of the United Nations’ integrated strategy for the Sahel (2014-2016) [13] and the Strategic Response Plan [14], the HCR is very active within the Resilience [15] group in order to ensure that the refugees will benefit from these programmes. The UNDAF [16] process of reflection and strategic planning also provides governments affected by the Malian refugee crisis with support.

[10] In Mauritania, malnutrition levels were 13.1 % (GAM) and 2.3 % (SAM) during the lean period in 2013 (summer), levels which are as low as they were in 2012 (Source : UNICEF Mauritania, Monthly Situation Report, January 2014).

[11] Particularly during the dry season (March-June), by avoiding the over-exploitation of water tables.

[12] These figures probably need to be updated (Source : SOS Désert).

[13] This includes three sections: Resilience, Security and Governance.

[14] Out of a total of 100 million USD, support for returns and socio-economic integration (local re-integration) represents 25 million USD. Currently, the rate at which the strategic response plan is being funded is 3%.

[15] Several working groups and initiatives at the sub-regional level include representatives of governmental institutions, United Nations agencies, NGOs, donors and other stakeholders. They constitute forums for the exchange of information, situational analysis and coordination for crisis preparedness and response. In addition to the theme of Resilience, there are also working groups on food security and nutrition, emergency preparedness and relief, disaster risk reduction and the Mali crisis (Mali+).

[16] UNDAF: United Nations Development Assistance Fund.