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 caux@unhcr.org
  • 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
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