Number of Malian refugees in Niger reaches new high despite war's end
The number of Malian refugees in Niger has reached its highest level since conflict erupted in 2012 in the West African nation, with thousands fleeing eastern Mali in recent weeks despite the signing of a peace accord last June between the government, a loyalist militia and a Tuareg-led rebel coalition.
The signing of the Algiers Accord has brought significant steps towards peace in parts of Mali, but it has not stemmed the flow into Niger and this is a concern and unexpected development that is putting a strain on our operation in Niger.
Those arriving in Niger say they are fleeing because of lawlessness, extortion, food shortages, inter-tribal rivalry, fighting between herders and farmers, and a power vacuum in the absence of a strong government and military presence in the east.
The number of Malian refugees in Niger stood at around 50,000 at the height of the 2012-2013 civil war, which ended when French and Malian troops defeated rebel forces. After presidential elections in 2013, UNHCR helped repatriate some 7,000 Malian refugees from Niger.
At the start of this year, there were 47,449 registered Malian refugees residing in Niger, with about 5,000 of them urban refugees in Ayorou and the capital Niamey and the rest in five camps in the Tillabéri and Tahoua regions.
But the numbers of arrivals started rising during the year, spiking in October and early November, when an estimated 4,000 Malian refugees crossed to Niger from the sparsely populated east. This brought the total number to a record high of 54,000 registered refugees in early November with a further 3,000 awaiting registration.
The majority of the new arrivals have come from rural areas in the regions of Menaka and Ansango. At Inates, where more than 2,000 Malians have recently arrived, female refugees said they fled to escape fighting between the Idourfane and Daoussak tribes. She said their animals had been stolen, their children could not go to school and public infrastructure had been damaged in the absence of national authorities.
The persistent insecurity in the rural zones around Menaka and Ansongo also negatively impacts the food security of the population. For those dependent on livestock, limited access to grazing land threatens their means of subsistence. Coming to Niger to seek assistance may also be a survival strategy.
In the camps in Niger, people who used to live in tents have started replacing them with homes made from mud, indicating they no longer expect a quick return. Some people do want to go back, but their numbers are dwarfed by those heading to Niger. In the first 10 months, we facilitated the voluntary repatriation of 953 refugees. Despite these returns, the number of new arrivals as well as the natural growth of the population has increased the overall refugee population by more than 10 per cent.
The new influx and unprecedented numbers of Malian refugees presents major challenges for UNHCR, which has seen a steady reduction in its operational budget. The evolving situation is the opposite of what we predicted and had prepared for.
As the situation evolves from an emergency into a protracted situation, funds are being decreased from US$300 per capita in 2013 to less than US$150 in 2016. The departure of self-financing NGOs and the phasing-out of support by other UN agencies, is severely straining the capacity of Niger to absorb this additional population.
The latest influx comes as a time when UNHCR had planned to be repatriating people or helping them to become self-sufficient. Achievements in the camps, including high school enrolment, good nutritional status and comparatively low poverty levels, are now under strain because of the new arrivals and shrinking budgets.
For more information on this topic, please contact:
- In Dakar (Regional), Helene Caux on mobile + 221 77 333 1291
- In Niamey, Benoit Moreno on mobile +227 92 1919 03
- In Geneva, Leo Dobs on mobile +41 79 883 6347