Niamey, Niger — At the beginning of this year, Omar was studying to become a French teacher in Timbuktu. Today, he is a refugee in neighbouring Niger and working as a tailor to earn enough money to keep his family alive in the city.
Omar never imagined a future outside Mali. But that all changed when conflict erupted in January in northern Mali between government forces and a rebel Tuareg movement, plunging the West African nation into chaos and causing more than 200,000 people to flee to neighbouring countries, mainly Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger.
The 23-year-old decided to leave with his family in April, after Islamist forces took control of Timbuktu and imposed a very rigid and harsh rule, including barring women from working with men and forbidding people to gather in groups. "I couldn't stay in Timbuktu," says Omar. "It's not the same world. I wanted to come to Niamey to escape that, look for a job and earn a living."
Many of the refugees from Mali have found shelter in refugee camps in isolated and arid areas of Niger. Omar is among some 6,000 Malians who have instead made for Niamey, many with relatives in the city and also drawn like him by the opportunity to find employment. But the budding linguist has had to lower his career expectations and take any work he can get.
He shares a shelter in the city's Zabarkan district with seven other Malian refugees, while his wife, children and an uncle live nearby in the yard of a local garage. The owner lets them stay in exchange for guarding the facilities. "It's not ideal to live in these conditions," notes Omar.
He said many of those coming to Niamey, including teachers, shopkeepers, students and sheep farmers, were driven to look for jobs because it was difficult to work in northern Mali due to insecurity and destruction. Many of these largely invisible urban refugees remit some of the money they earn to their families back in Mali, but others face challenges becoming self-sufficient.
Omar ekes out a living by working as a tailor. He uses a sewing machine lent to him by his cousin Fatouma while she is taking care of her newborn baby, On a good day, he can earn the equivalent of US$10.
Some of his friends make money by collecting water in plastic containers at a public distribution point and then delivering it for a fee to businesses and families in their neighborhood. It's hard work. Alassane, 39, starts working at 5 am every day and covers about eight kilometres a day for an average earning of about US$5.
It's a job he knows well and one traditionally carried out by Malians in the region, but he wishes that he had something more substantial. In his home town of Gao on the River Niger, he worked for an NGO teaching languages, but the organization had to leave for security reasons.
"Nevertheless, I need to make a living and this water business gives me the chance to support my wife and four children back in Gao, and also to buy food here in Niamey to survive," he explains.
Urban refugees make up more than half of the more than 10 million refugees of concern to UNHCR. They face different needs from those living in camps or collective centres in other parts of the world.
Rahinatou Kanta Ibrahima-Daddy, a UNHCR protection worker, says that the refugee agency is concerned about the welfare of people like Omar and Alassane and their ability to survive in the urban jungle. Some struggle to get access to health care and education as well as protection and information about their rights. "With a new UNHCR registration operation starting in November, we will be able to better identify them and address their needs," she says of the urban refugees.
Despite the difficulties, Omar says he made the right decision coming to Niamey. "Life is challenging here, but I'd rather be near my family than staying in refugee camps: it's easier to fit in a new country when you live in a city," he says. "The prospects are not good back home so I want to give it a chance here in Niamey."
Niger currently hosts an estimated 61,900 Malian refugees. The crisis has also led to the return home from Gao of more than 3,100 nationals of Niger. These displacements have occurred in a difficult period for Niger, which was already facing food shortages and devastating flooding in August.Charlotte Arnaud in Niamey, Niger