UNHCR moves Malian refugees to safer areas of Burkina Faso

Making a Difference, 21 December 2012

© UNHCR/H.Reichenberger
Malian refugees with their belongings after arriving at Goudebou camp in Burkina Faso.

GOUDEBOU, Burkina Faso, December 21 (UNHCR) Mother of two, Mariam, is quite well travelled in the Sahel region, but not from choice. Over the past two decades, insecurity and conflict has forced the 49-year-old to flee her native Mali and seek shelter in Algeria in 1994, Mauritania in 2006 and Burkina Faso last February.

She recently moved again, but this time she was happy about it after the most traumatic few months of her life, starting in January with the killing of her husband by government troops in northern Mali's Gao region and including nine months of hardship and uncertainty in Burkina Faso's isolated Fererio refugee camp, located in arid country some 25 kilometres from Mali.

Mariam, her two daughters and her blind father were among the first to be moved by UNHCR to the Goudebou camp, 150 kilometres from the border, under a programme to relocate people away from the Fererio and Gandafabou camps, which respectively housed some 7,675 and 2,974 refugees when the exercise began in late October. Security is a concern at both sites, while Gandafabou suffers from water supply problems.

UNHCR and other humanitarian aid agencies at Fererio have provided shelter, life-saving assistance and basic services to thousands of Malian refugees since government forces and an ethnic Tuareg rebel movement began fighting in January and triggered a population displacement.

But the refugees at Fereiro have not felt safe there because of its proximity to the border at a time when the north of Mali has come under the strict control of Islamic militants, causing more people to flee. "I am very scared of the news coming from northern Mali," Mariam said, referring to reports of human rights abuses and the imposition of strict Islamic rule. "In Fererio, I knew they were not far away. So I feared about what could happen to me and my two girls [if fighting spilled over the border]."

Angele Djohossou, UNHCR's deputy representative in Mali, adds that the closeness of the border "places the refugees at risk of being forcibly recruited, especially the young ones who do not have activities to occupy their time."

At Goudebou, the security is much better and it is easier to provide protection, shelter, general assistance and access to basic services than the isolated camp near the border. The new camp is located on the outskirts of Dori, capital of Burkina Faso's Sahel r1egion.

UNHCR is working with experienced international partners to provide a wide range of facilities, assistance and opportunities, including protection, shelter, animal husbandry and veterinarian services for those bringing their livestock, income-generation activities and access to health care and education.

To date, more than 2,680 refugees have been relocated to Goudebou from Fererio and Gandafabou, including 445 particularly vulnerable people who were transported separately. Most of the refugees are nomads and many have brought along their livestock: UNHCR has relocated more than 1,700 animals, mainly goats and cattle, to the new site. Mariam had to leave her sheep and goats behind in the rush to flee.

She had quickly volunteered to move to Goudebou and, because of the difficulty and vulnerability of their situation, the UN refugee agency moved her and her relatives on special four-wheel drive ambulances along with older people, those living with disabilities, pregnant women and the seriously ill. The others being relocated travel on UNHCR trucks.

In Goudebou, the refugees are given shelter kits by the Norwegian Refugee Council to build homes, though construction workers help the most vulnerable. They are also briefed on the activities and services available in the camp from UNHCR and its partners.

For the first time in months, Mariam says she is now enjoying a "life that resembles normality," where her father can get medical care from Medicos del Mundo and her children can attend schools run by Plan Burkina. In January, when she heard that her husband had been mistaken for a rebel and killed, she felt as though her life had fallen apart. "Luckily I had my children to give me courage and hope," she said.

Today in Goudebou, she is seizing every opportunity even though the future remains uncertain. She is participating in activities organized by Oxfam (Spain), such as helping to promote good hygiene practices. And despite the bad memories, she has one goal: "What I most wish for today is for peace to come back to Mali, so that I can return one day and lead the life that I miss," she said, while adding: "A life that I am not sure I will ever have again."

By Hugo Reichenberger in Goudebou, Burkina Faso

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