UNHCR set to help relocate thousands of Malian refugees from borders

UNHCR field staff say people are living in makeshift shelters, facing extremes of heat by day and cold at night. The health situation is relatively stable.

UNHCR has been helping refugees from Mali, such as these arrivals in Mauritania  © UNHCR/A.O.Barry

GENEVA, February 14 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency said Friday it has begun planning with the governments of Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger to relocate refugees fleeing Mali to safer locations away from border areas.

"In northern Niger, we have had reports of significant new arrivals over the weekend - most from the Anderboukane and Menaka areas of Mali. UNHCR does not at this stage have confirmed numbers for overall arrivals from Mali in Niger, but from available estimates we know there are multiples of thousands," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva.

Field staff say people are living in makeshift shelters, facing extremes of heat by day and cold at night. The health situation is relatively stable but there are incidences of malaria, eye infection, diarrhea and respiratory infection while the sanitation and clean water situation is inadequate.

"UNHCR health experts are working with the Niger health authorities and medical agencies already on the ground to coordinate the response," Edwards said. He added that the refugee agency was also working with the Niger government on plans to move the refugees to sites away from the volatile border.

"We have just identified a site to set up a camp near Ouallam town, 100 kilometres north of [the Niger capital] Niamey. The site will host refugees presently staying in Sinegodar and Mangaize in Tillabery region. Some refugees have told us that they are reluctant to move since they hope to return home as soon as the security conditions permit," Edwards said.

Refugees have told UNHCR staff that there are many people displaced at the Mali border and that they might cross over to Niger should the situation in Mali deteriorate.

In Burkina Faso, according to the authorities, 8,000 people have entered the country so far - they are now mainly in the north. Many are women and children. They lack food, water and shelter.

Edwards said the government had asked UNHCR to help with the relocation of thousands of these refugees from spontaneous settlements in the north of the country to two sites in Goudebo and Ingani, further away from the border.

In Mauritania, more than 13,000 people have arrived in the past two weeks - an average of 1,000 a day. Refugees are living in makeshift shelters. A UNHCR site planner arrived at the border on Tuesday and is working with the Mauritanian authorities and local non-governmental organizations to prepare a camp in M'Bera, 50 kms from the border.

UNHCR staff are now on site in all three countries, and planning for registration is under way. Meanwhile, assistance is continuing in all three countries. In Mauritania, UNHCR is mid-way through distributing a 15-day food ration, tents and non-food items to refugees at the border town of Fassala. Several flights carrying tents and relief items arrived over the weekend at Nema airport.

For Niger and Burkina Faso, 2,500 tents will be airlifted this week to Niger from a UNHCR stockpile in Douala, Cameroon; 500 will be delivered by road to Burkina Faso. Meanwhile, a convoy left Accra, Ghana at the weekend with 40 tonnes of relief assistance for refugees in Niger and Burkina Faso.

By Divers