Renewed fighting in northern Mali forces 57,000 to flee their homes
GENEVA, May 29 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency, citing government figures, on Friday said renewed fighting between armed groups in the Gao, Mopti and Timbuktu areas of northern Mali in the past four weeks has led to some 57,000 people fleeing their homes.
"The volatile security situation is hindering access for humanitarian workers to all affected areas and the growing insecurity in the region is making the provision of protection and assistance to the newly-displaced very challenging," UNHCR spokesman William Spindler told journalists in Geneva.
He explained that the newly-displaced join the ranks of more than 43,000 internally displaced people throughout the country who have not yet returned to their homes since the conflict in 2012 between governmental forces and various rebel groups. The total number of internally displaced people (IDP) in Mali stands now at just over 100,000, mainly in the northern part of the country.
The deterioration in the security situation came days after the signing of a May 15 peace agreement between the government and several armed groups in the Mali capital, Bamako. Those most affected by population displacement live in the Timbuktu Region, where more than 53,000 IDPs have been registered.
The government is also reporting the forced displacement of some 2,350 people in the Gao region and just over 1,600 in the Mopti area. "Our teams in northern Mali spoke to some of the newly displaced who said that they had fled their villages because of fear of violence or forced recruitment by armed groups," Spindler said.
He noted that UNHCR, with IEDA Relief and Handicap International, had sent a team to Timbuktu to assess the needs. They found that many people had moved to locations considered safer around their villages of origin, or to neighbouring villages. "Many are sleeping outdoors and some are staying with friends or relatives. They report that many women and children are among the displaced, and that they urgently need shelter, water and food," Spindler said.
He said that earlier this week, and despite the difficult situation, UNHCR had started to deliver relief items to more than 1,500 newly displaced people in Goundam, located 85 kilometres west of Timbuktu. The distribution is continuing with the help of a local partner, Stop Sahel.
"We are also currently moving relief items to the Timbuktu area in order to organize the future distribution of kitchen sets, soap, mosquito nets, blankets and plastic sheeting to some 12,000 people newly displaced in Gourma Rharous, some 100 kilometres east of Timbuktu," Spindler said.
In addition to internal displacement, small numbers of people are crossing to neighbouring countries. UNHCR teams have registered 258 new arrivals from Mali in Burkina Faso between May 11 and 28, while some 236 Malians have arrived in Mauritania since the end of April. In Niger, UNHCR teams report the arrival of 238 new refugees from Mali.
"Although the numbers are still relatively low, this is an extremely worrying development since it shows the degree to which civil strife in Mali is undermining social cohesion. In Niger, the refugees originate from a single village in the Gao region where fighting between different armed groups took place earlier this month and civilians were killed," Spindler said, adding that as a result, the villagers fled to Niger but do not want to live in one camp as they accuse each other of having links to opposing armed groups.
Malian refugees had been slowly but consistently returning home from Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger until the latest violence flared up. The Mali government estimates that 35,232 refugees have returned home since 2013. UNHCR has verified 16,500 of them, of whom 1,121 have returned since January this year.
In return areas, we support returnees through community-based projects, such as rehabilitating schools, providing medicine to hospitals, digging wells, distributing shelter kits, supporting self-reliance activities, or assisting vulnerable people with relief items. In order to foster peaceful coexistence in return areas, these projects benefit both the host and returnee communities.
Some 137,500 Malians remain refugees in neighbouring countries, including 33,400 in Burkina Faso, 52,000 in Mauritania, and some 50,000 in Niger.