UNHCR and WFP chiefs highlight plight of Mali refugees in Niger

News Stories, 7 May 2012

© UNHCR/H.Caux
High Commissioner António Guterres meets refugees from Mali during his visit to Niger.

NIAMEY, Niger, May 7 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has called on the international community to help Malian refugees and host communities in Niger and said a political solution was urgently needed to prevent the situation in the Sahel region from turning into a global crisis.

"The international community must mobilize itself to assist the local communities and refugees in need in Niger and in the Sahel countries. Aid agencies crucially need more financial support," Guterres said during a four-day visit to Niger with World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director Ertharin Cousin.

"They must also come together in order to find political solutions to the Mali situation. This is absolutely necessary to avoid a crisis turning into a global threat to the security in the region," he stressed. The continuing fighting in Mali between government forces and rebel Tuareg fighters has left 150,000 displaced within the country and forced more than 160,000 to find refuge in neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. Others have arrived in Algeria.

Guterres and Cousin, who assumed office last month, arrived in Niger last Friday and have since visited refugees and host communities in the Ouallam and Maradi regions, where villages face food shortages. "We are facing in Niger, and other countries in the Sahel, a deadly combination: drought first, with a dramatic food security problem that WFP is addressing with an enormous effort, and an ongoing conflict in Mali," Guterres said Saturday in Mangaizé refugee camp.

"UNHCR has been moving the refugees from the volatile border areas to refugee sites, or camps further inland where they can have better access to water, shelter, health structures. But with the persistent political and security instability in Mali, we fear that new influxes will continue to put an additional strain on neighbouring countries," he added.

Mangaizé camp, located 75 kilometers from the border with Mali and about 150 kms from the capital Niamey, is hosting more than 3,000 Malian refugees. Many had fled attacks on northern cities and the general insecurity, reaching the camp by truck.

Ousseini, a 30-year-old primary school teacher, sold a television and some goats to raise enough money to pay a truck driver a week ago to take him, his wife, their son and seven nephews to Mangaizé from the town of Menaka, in northern Mali's Gao region. They originally came from Kidal, but left the town in early April when it came under attack. "We left because of insecurity, but also because I have not been paid since February," He explained. They made their way to Menaka, but decided to leave for Niger when the security situation deteriorated and it became difficult to get food and medicine.

Mariama, aged 47, also fled from Kidal to Menaka. She went with her seven children and mother-in-law, but could not afford to take everyone on to Niger. "My father gave me a goat that I sold to pay for transportation from Menaka to Niger, but it was not enough for all of us so I left my three youngest children with my cousins," she said. Her parents stayed behind in Kidal and she feared for their safety. "We could not stay in Menaka as my family members are also having problems to feed their own families, we just did not want to be an extra burden."

Conditions in the Mangaizé camp are tough; children, pregnant women and older people suffer a lot from the heat and the arid environment. Simple tasks require a lot of effort, like pumping water and pounding sorghum grains for food. Many people suffer from respiratory infections, diarrhoea and malaria and need treatment at the clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontières. UNHCR pays for an ambulance to take women facing difficult pregnancies to Ouallam city, an hour away.

While visiting Mangaizé, the High Commissioner noted the harsh living conditions but stressed to the refugees that UNHCR was working closely with its partners to improve their daily lives. UNHCR is about to move families to a tented camp.

Guterres met with Niger's Prime Minister Brigi Rafini and other senior officials on Monday to discuss the refugee situation and reiterated his thanks to Niger for hosting the Malian refugees.

By Hélène Caux in Niamey, Niger