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Helping refugees by respecting and assisting their hosts in Burkina Faso


Helping refugees by respecting and assisting their hosts in Burkina Faso

The arrival of thousands of Malian refugees initially met with mixed reactions, but relations have warmed thanks to inspired leaders and aid for host communities.
8 January 2013
Mustapha (left in jeans) visits Sag-nioniogo village with the chieftain, Maurice. It's the second time he has been a refugee in the village, where he spent four years as a child and learned the local language. He feels like he is among family.

SAG-NIONIOGO, Burkina Faso, January 8 (UNHCR) - Local chieftain Maurice has his work cut out at the best of times looking after the interests of the 10,000 residents of Sag-nioniogo. Since last October, he's also had to deal with the unexpected arrival of hundreds of refugees from neighbouring Mali.

It's a testament to his leadership and diplomatic skills that the two communities have been living side-by-side peacefully in this village just outside the Burkina Faso capital, Ouagadougou. When asked how life has changed in Sag-nioniogo since the influx, he says: "A nation without foreigners, is no nation at all."

That's an encouraging sentiment to hear from an influential community leader like Maurice, but major challenges remain, including the increasing strain on resources in an area hit by drought and food insecurity and the need to also help the host community if resentment is to be avoided.

Maurice, a subsistence farmer, starts the day by checking on his crops and livestock before dealing with his duties as chief. In the past three months, this has included a daily visit to the refugee camp set up by UNHCR on land usually cultivated by his peers. He catches up on the latest news and issues affecting both communities, including potential areas of friction.

The newcomers are among the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled violence and strict Islamic rule in northern Mali since January last year, when fighting erupted between Malian government troops and an ethnic Tuareg rebel group. Some 38,000 of them have made their way to Burkina Faso, including the 2,700 at Sag-nioniogo, where UNHCR and its partners have provided shelter and food as well as supporting the local school and health centre.

The arrival of the refugees initially met with mixed reactions in Sag-nioniogo, where some villagers had to give up land so that the refugee camp could be established. The locals were also angered when a group of refugees pitched their tents on a site regarded as sacred.

Others were simply resentful of the attention paid to the newcomers. "It is not always easy to see UN cars rush in to cater for the Malians, while we remain poor and hungry," acknowledged one inhabitant of Sag-nioniogo.

But UNHCR and its partners, helped by people like Maurice and refugee leaders, have tackled these obstacles through comprehensive mediation as well as awareness sessions on refugees and on culturally sensitive issues.

What's more, some of the refugees, like 30-year-old Mustapha, have been here before and made friends in Burkina Faso during earlier displacement crises. They help build bridges between the two communities.

Mustapha, a Tuareg, fled to Burkina Faso with his wife and two children almost a year ago from Mali's Gao region. Travelling with their two donkeys, they made their way to Sag-nioniogo - 18 years after he had first fled to the village. He spent four years here that time and learned Mooré, a local tonal language.

Maurice remembers Mustapha well: "The first time he came to Burkina Faso, he was just a child," he said, adding: "It was great to see and hear from him again." And his facility with the language has helped to ensure understanding between the communities.

But the refugee agency and its partners are taking additional measures across Burkina Faso to pre-empt potential problems and to anchor the good neighbourly relations. "UNHCR has planned its operation in a manner that will stimulate the peaceful cohabitation between the refugees and the local population," Ibrahima Coly, UNHCR's representative in Burkina Faso, stressed.

For starters, the most vulnerable among the local population are also being given material assistance as well as help in accessing basic services, including education and health care. In some areas, UNHCR has helped renovate village schools that can be used by refugees and local children.

In the recently opened Goudebou Camp, near the city of Dori, 554 refugees are attending the local primary school alongside 22 local children. UNHCR and its partner, Plan Burkina Faso, have started constructing 24 classrooms that will be open to new arrivals from Mali as well as the local community. Students are also learning a mix of Burkina Faso and Mali history, which will help them understand each other better.

Vulnerable locals are also benefitting from the health schemes set up to assist refugees. At the health clinic run by UNHCR and Médecins du Monde-France (MDM-F) in Mentao Camp, Soum province, more than half of those turning up for consultations are from the local community.

Aboubacar Mahamadou, a UNHCR associate public health officer, added that the clinic had been treating locals for problems such as malaria, respiratory diseases and diarrhoea. The doctor added that UNHCR and its partners, including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and MDM-Spain as well as MDM-France, had also been spreading awareness in Burkina Faso about cholera and the need for good hygiene and sanitation.

These partners have also been supporting the primary health posts in several camps and this has also benefitted the local population. All these measures have helped to ease tension between the refugees and their hosts.

By Hugo Reichenberger in Sag-nioniogo, Burkina Faso