Mali: Urgent humanitarian help needed as war expands, wide reports of human rights abuses

Briefing Notes, 25 January 2013

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 25 January 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is renewing its appeal for an urgent scaling up of international aid for the hundreds of thousands of people now displaced by the war in Mali. This is to prevent a worsening of the now acutely fragile humanitarian situation across the Sahel.

Since the start of the conflict in northern Mali a year ago, more than 150,000 refugees have fled to neighbouring Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, while nearly 230,000 have sought safety in other areas inside Mali.

In Bamako, Mali's capital, the number of internally displaced people is now estimated at close to 50,000. They are in poor neighbourhoods with little or no access to housing or vital services such as clean water, education and health.

From people fleeing the current fighting in the north of Mali, we continue hearing worrying accounts of atrocities said to have been committed by the Al-Qaeda-linked rebels.

A former resident of Gao, who left the town after recent air strikes, told us that food and fuel are in short supply. Armed groups have stripped the city hospital of medicines, and at the hospital dead bodies are said to be everywhere. Wounded fighters from these armed groups are being brought into the city, among the fighters many foreigners. The person we spoke to reported seeing a woman being executed summarily for refusing to show the contents of her bag to a fighter as she tried to board a bus. Amputations of hands or feet are used as punishments.

IDP families in Bamako told UNHCR that they had been uprooted by the conflict several times, fleeing ahead of the rebel advance. They lost most or all of their belongings and left relatives behind. Fighters are not preventing people from leaving the areas they control but they check their bags thoroughly and take away any food, money or valuables.

In neighbouring Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger, UNHCR is hearing similar accounts from newly-arrived refugees who we interview to determine protection and assistance needs. Children are reportedly being abducted from their families and made to fight for the rebels. Armed groups are also confiscating private vehicles one of the reasons why refugees are traveling huge distances on foot or by donkey.

In Burkina Faso, many of the new arrivals are ethnic Tuareg and Arab women and children. They told us they fled for fear of becoming confused with the rebels, who are said to be trying to blend in with the civilian population.

Another reason for leaving northern Mali, according to the refugees, is the presence of bandits and militias from other ethnic groups. Food and other essentials are in short supply, with markets closed and shops empty.

Since 11 January, when the French military intervened to help the Malian army stop an offensive by extremist fighters, over 9,000 new refugees have fled the country and been registered and assisted by UNHCR and our partners in Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso.

According to UNHCR's latest registration figures, in the last 12 days (between 11 and 23 January), 5,486 Malian refugees arrived in Mauritania; 2,302 in Burkina Faso and 1,578 in Niger. They joined the 54,000 refugees in Mauritania, 50,000 in Niger, 38,800 in Burkina Faso and 1,500 in Algeria, who had fled earlier fighting. The latest arrivals bring the total number of Malian refugees in the region to over 150,000.

Some Malians fleeing northern Mali have gone through Niger and Burkina Faso, before reaching Bamako a three-day journey reportedly costing some 60,000 CFA francs (approximately US$120).

There is consensus among most humanitarian organisations working in Mali that the humanitarian situation in the country was already at crisis point and deteriorating, even before the recent round of fighting.

The countries of the Sahel region have been facing severe drought conditions for years and are among the poorest in the world. UNHCR is appealing for urgently increased assistance for these countries to help them cope with the continuing arrival of thousands of terrorised, traumatised and destitute refugees from the war in Mali, most of them women and children.

UNHCR appealed last year for US$123.7 million for its Mali crisis operations, but has received only about 60 per cent of this amount. The most urgent needs are food, shelter, clean water, sanitation, health and education.

UNHCR Mali media team:

  • Spokesperson: (Bamako) Helene Caux +221 77 333 1291
  • Regional Representative: (Bamako/Dakar) Valentin Tapsoba +221 77 529 5014
  • Spokesperson: (Bamako) William Spindler +33 623 316 11 78
  • In Burkina Faso: Hugo Reichenberger on mobile + 226 66 61 94 94
  • In Niger: Charlotte Arnaud on mobile + 227 92 19 19 03
  • In Mauritania: Nada Merheb on mobile + 222 33 49 26 26
  • In Geneva: Adrian Edwards on mobile +41 79 557 91 20
  • Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba on mobile +41 79 249 3483



UNHCR country pages

Mali Crisis: Urgent Appeal

More than 300,000 Malians have been forced to abandon homes in the hope of finding safety. Help us protect them.

Donate to this crisis

Thousands Start Afresh in Niger After Fleeing Nigeria

In May 2013, the Nigerian government, responding to a surge in violence in the north-east of the country, declared a state of emergency in the volatile states of Borno, Adawama and Yobe. Many people fled to neighbouring Niger's Diffa region and to the Far North Region of Cameroon. Fresh violence in January this year has forced thousands more to flee to both countries. UNHCR photographer Hélène Caux visited the towns of Bosso and Diffa in Niger's Diffa region shortly before the latest influx. She met some of the Nigerian refugees who had fled earlier waves of violence across the border. They told her of the violence they had seen, the losses they had suffered and their attempts to lead as normal a life as possible in Diffa, including sending their children to attend school. They are grateful to the communities that have welcomed and helped them in Niger.

Thousands Start Afresh in Niger After Fleeing Nigeria

The Most Important Thing – Malian Refugees in Burkina Faso

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For the Sudanese, the most important things were primarily objects to keep them alive during their long, difficult journey: a pot, an axe, a water jug or a basket. For Syrians, the objects were largely sentimental: an old ring, a torn photograph, the key to a door that may no longer exist. Among the Malians depicted in this photo gallery, the objects largely had to do with their cultural identity. They spoke of how the items helped them to still feel part of their people, despite being forced into exile.

The Most Important Thing – Malian Refugees in Burkina Faso

Relocation from the Border Country of Burkina Faso

The process of relocating refugees from one site to a safer one is full of challenges. In Burkina Faso, the UN refugee agency has been working with partner organizations and the government to move thousands of Malian refugee families away from border sites like Damba to a safer camp some 100 kilometres to the south. Working under hot and harsh conditions, the aid workers had to dismantle shelters and help people load their belongings onto trucks for the journey. The new site at Mentao is also much easier to access with emergency assistance, including shelter, food, health care and education. These images, taken by photographer Brian Sokol, follow the journey made by Agade Ag Mohammed, a 71-year-old nomad, and his family from Damba to Mentao in March. They fled their home in Gao province last year to escape the violence in Mali, including a massacre that left two of his sons, a brother and five nephews dead. As of mid-April 2013 there were more than 173,000 Malian refugees in neighbouring countries. Within the arid West African nation there are an estimated 260,000 internally displaced people.

Relocation from the Border Country of Burkina Faso

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People escaping the fighting between the Nigerian army and Boko Haram rebels get a friendly welcome in Niger.
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