Mali: Refugees still fleeing, internal return prospects mixed

Briefing Notes, 1 February 2013

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 1 February 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

In Mali, the fast-evolving situation in the north of the country has raised hopes that many displaced people will be able to go back to their homes soon. Nonetheless, considerable challenges remain to a safe and sustainable return. To the extent that refugee numbers are a barometer of the situation, UNHCR notes that refugees are continuing to leave to neighbouring countries.

In the capital, Bamako, we have interviewed displaced families who say they are ready to return to their homes in the Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal regions, as soon as the roads to the north are re-opened. Bus services to Gao and Timbuktu have been suspended because of the on-going conflict.

Bus companies in Bamako confirm that they are receiving phone calls from people asking about the resumption of regular services to Douentza, Gao and Timbuktu. Buses are presently traveling only as far as Mopti and Sevare.

While some of the displaced are eager to return home, reports of unrest and revenge attacks against certain groups are dissuading others. Media and other reports show that Tuareg and Arab minorities, in particular, have been targeted because of their perceived support for the rebels, who have been accused of serious abuses against the population.

Shortages of food, fuel and electricity, as well as disruption to basic services such as health and education, are also mentioned by those people who at present prefer to wait and see before returning to the north.

The presence of anti-personnel landmines and unexploded ordnance is also a serious concern, both for the civilian population and aid agencies hoping to help them. Some of the displaced have told us that their houses in the north have been seriously damaged or destroyed, and that they will need assistance to repair or rebuild them. Families whose children are attending schools in Bamako, say they will not return to the north until after the end of the school year in June.

Living conditions for the internally displaced in the south are precarious. Families lacking the means to rent houses are sleeping in the open, on roof terraces. Children, in particular, are suffering from the cold at night and are prone to coughing and respiratory diseases, as they are exposed to wind and wind-blown sand.

From internally displaced people a common complaint is about the lack of assistance from the government or aid agencies. People lack blankets, tents, mosquito nets, clothes and school supplies for their children. Many children go to school on an empty stomach, as their parents cannot afford to buy food. Many IDP families survive thanks to the generosity of neighbours who collect money for them so that they can pay their rent and buy food.

Bamako is home to some 50,000 IDPs who have fled fighting and instability in the north since January 2012.

Meanwhile, Malian refugees continue to cross into neighbouring countries to flee the fighting or because of fear of reprisals.

In Burkina Faso, there are currently 43,629 Malian refugees registered (as of 29 January), including 5,411 who arrived since the beginning of the French intervention in Mali on 11 January.

UNHCR is increasing missions to the border areas, such as in the remote village of Inabao where most refugees are arriving, to quickly assist the refugees arriving from Mali and identify their most urgent needs.

Most of the refugees arriving from Mali in recent days are Arab and Tuareg women and children. Tuareg men are staying behind to take care of their cattle. This shows that people are increasingly fleeing out of desperation, as the Arab refugees have left behind their commerce and economic activities.

The refugees cite fear of aerial bombardments and fear of reprisals as the main reasons for fleeing Mali. A refugee man said that he had sustained minor injuries when war planes attacked rebel positions near his home. He is now in a refugee camp in Burkina Faso with his family, where he has received medical attention.

Refugees have told our staff of attacks by armed bandits and militias from rival ethnic groups. Arab traders, in particular, have been reportedly preyed upon by bandits.

Many refugee families are hiring cars or trucks to take them to the border. In the last days, the weather conditions of cold nights mixed with strong dusty winds have not made it ideal for people who are fleeing. Some refugee children and adults are suffering from respiratory infections caused by inhaling dust.

New arrivals are met at the border by mobile teams from UNHCR or its partners, and transported to Mentao or Goudebou refugee camps, where they receive assistance, such as hot meals upon arrival and traditional shelter kits, and are immediately individually registered.

As a security measure, UNHCR is re-locating refugees from the Damba and Gandafabou sites close to the Malian border, to locations further inside Burkina Faso. The Fererio camp has already been closed and residents relocated to Goudebou, near Dori.

In Mauritania, there are currently 64,805, including 10,688 who arrived since the military intervention in Mali.

Our teams on the ground report that 90 percent of the newly-arrived refugees are women and children. UNHCR and its partners are improving the reception facilities at Fassala transit centre, 3 kilometers from the Malian border. The health post has been upgraded and convoys are organized to transport the refugees safely away from the border to Mbera refugee camp, some 50 kilometers from the border, where they are registered and receive immediate assistance. Work has started on an extension of the camp, to accommodate future arrivals.

In Niger, the number of recent arrivals remains small. According to the refugees, this is due to the lack of affordable transport. People often walk or ride donkeys to Foukouratan in Mali, some 25 kilometers from the border, from where there is transport to Mangaize camp inside Niger. Some recently-arrived refugees say they fled the town of Menaka in eastern Mali, because of fighting.

There are an estimated 230,000 displaced people inside Mali and over 150,000 Malian refugees in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria.

UNHCR Mali media team:

  • Spokesperson: (Bamako) Helene Caux +223 61 77 77 44 / +221 77 333 1291 caux@unhcr.org
  • Regional Representative: (Bamako/Dakar) Valentin Tapsoba +221 77 529 5014
  • Spokesperson: (Bamako) William Spindler + 33 6 23 16 11 78 / +223 60 626 055
  • 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
  • In Geneva: Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba on mobile +41 79 249 3483
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