Damba Camp — UNHCR High Commissioner António Guterres has called for countries to increase their support to the severely-underfunded Malian refugee operation in a region that can barely feed its own people.
The High Commissioner made the appeal during his three-day visit to Burkina Faso, which hosts 107,000 Malian refugees, the highest number in the region. On Wednesday he travelled to Damba camp in northern Burkina Faso with Anne C. Richard, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BRPM) in United States, to attract attention to one of the world's most hidden humanitarian and refugee emergencies.
More a quarter of a million people have fled Mali in the last six months as fighting erupted between government forces, Tuareg rebels and various armed groups. In addition to the refugees in Burkina Faso, there are also 96,000 in Mauritania and 53,000 in Niger. Another 174,000 are internally displaced within Mali.
"We have now 257,000 refugees from Mali who are going through an enormous level of suffering and deprivation," said Guterres in Damba camp, home to some 1,200 Malian refugees. "They had to cross the borders of very poor countries that have very dramatic food security problems: Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. They found a fantastic generosity in their host countries that are sharing everything they have with them, but they did not find until now the attention of the international community. We, the aid agencies, are struggling to provide them with basic needs in water, food, sanitation and health."
Half a year into the Malian conflict, UNHCR is still struggling with a severe lack of funding. Despite a recent US$10 million donation from the United States and contributions from other donors, the refugee agency has only received US$ 49.9 million out of the US$153 million needed to help Malian refugees and the internally displaced.
"My appeal to the international community is for them to show the Malian refugees, as well as the Governments of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania, the exact same level of solidarity that these Governments have been showing to the Malian refugees," said BPRM's Richard. "There are a lot of other crises around the world, so I think people get fatigued and tired of hearing about crises. But we know that a little help can go a long way. So we hope that we can bring more donors to learn about this situation and to take positive actions."
In Damba camp, Guterres and Richard visited the registration centre where a UNHCR team has been registering and collecting detailed information on the profile and actual number of refugees in official sites. This information will enable UNHCR to provide adequate assistance to the refugees according to their needs. The registration is scheduled to take place in all official sites in Burkina Faso for the next few weeks.
Refugees in Damba receive 14.5 litres per person per day, thanks to two boreholes dug by UNHCR and water bladders managed by Oxfam. Refugees and the local population can also use the health centre run by Médecins du Monde. Malaria, respiratory infections and intestinal parasites are the most common ailments.
Most of the camp's refugees left Gossi town in northern Mali in anticipation of attacks. Recent arrivals say that the emergence of new extremist armed groups in northern Mali since March is pushing more and more people to leave their homes.
Oumey, 25, arrived in Damba camp on July 20 after walking for two weeks. "Fear pushed me to leave my home," he told Guterres and Richard in his tent. "I saw people being killed in front of me when Gossi was taken over by armed groups at the end of June. I did not want to wait for my turn."
His guests also met with Raichatou, a 62-year-old grandmother who fled Mali with 13 members of her family including her mentally handicapped son. They walked for two weeks with a donkey, some water and little food. Out of the 430 goats they brought with them, only 30 survive the long journey. The rest died of dehydration.
"We left because everybody around us was leaving their villages. We panicked. We had news that main cities were being taken over by armed groups," said Raichatou. She now feels safe in Burkina Faso and does not want to return to Mali unless peace prevails again.
Guterres stressed the difficulties faced by UNHCR and other aid agencies in helping these refugees. "When you have over 250,000 people in semi-desert areas of landlocked countries, with huge logistic problems, and when those countries themselves are facing exceptional challenges, not only in relation to development but also in their capacity to feed their own people, it is obvious that all the resources that we can find are not yet in proportion with the needs we face," he said. "That is why I hope that the attention of the international community will be more focused on the Mali situation."
Guterres and Richard are scheduled to meet with Burkina Be officials including the President and the Minister of Foreign Affairs on Thursday in the country's capital Ouagadougou. They will also meet with other UN agencies and non-governmental partners to discuss the Mali refugee emergency, the humanitarian situation in Mali and the repercussions on neighbouring countries.