Bamako, Mali — Almost 7,500 refugees have fled into neighbouring countries since French and Malian forces launched a counter-offensive against Islamic militants almost two weeks ago and the exodus is continuing.
In Mauritania, 4,208 Malian refugees have arrived since the latest fighting began on January 11. After being registered at the Fassala transit centre, they are being transported further inland to the Mbera refugee camp, which was already hosting some 55,000 people from earlier displacements.
In Niger there are now 1,300 new refugees, mainly from the Menaka and Anderamboukane areas. During the same period, Burkina Faso has received 1,829 new refugees. These are mainly ethnic Tuaregs and Songhai from the regions of Gossi, Timbuktu, Gao and Bambara Maoude.
"To help receive people we have erected two hangars in Inabao, at the border with Mali, which is currently the main entry point for new refugees. Our partner, Plan Burkina, has also rehabilitated a water pump and has constructed emergency latrines," a UNHCR spokesman, Adrian Edwards, said. "In part, this is aimed too at easing any possible tensions with the local population," he added.
New arrivals continue to tell UNHCR that they left their homes because of French air strikes and fighting, as well as fears over the application of Islamic law, or Sharia. They also speak of increasing shortages of food and fuel, with traditional markets unable to operate. A lack of cereal is pushing breeders to either kill some of their animals as they have nothing else to eat, or to try to sell them.
Some refugees are travelling by private car or by truck, while others have arrived from Mali on foot or by donkey. Many newly arrived refugees are expecting additional members of their families to join them in the next days from Mali.
UNHCR and partners continue to assist those refugees who are in camps in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania by providing clean water, sanitation and hygiene structures, food, adequate shelter, health care and education.
In Burkina Faso, vehicles are going back and forth at the border to collect those who are unable to walk. "We are also continuing to relocate refugees from the border to safer sites inland," spokesman Edwards noted.
On Saturday, a convoy with 568 refugees left the Ferrerio and Gandafabou refugee sites, in Burkina Faso's northern Sahel region to be relocated to Goudebou camp near the town of Dori. Ferrerio will now only be used as a transit centre for the new arrivals before they are transported to Goudebou. In total, Burkina Faso is hosting 38,776 Malian refugees.
Including those displaced this month, almost 150,000 Malians have found refuge in neighbouring countries since the Mali crisis started in January 2012. Inside Mali, 229,000 people are displaced - mainly from the Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao areas.
For the internally displaced as well as for refugees, the immediate needs are for water, food, shelter and medical care. Living conditions are particularly precarious for the internally displaced and UNHCR is supporting income-generation activities in the Mali capital of Bamako for IDPs.
But humanitarian access to other areas of Mali is severely restricted by the security situation. Abdullah, 41, was staying in a small room at his father's house in the capital after fleeing with his family from the southern town of Diabaly, which was captured by the Islamists on January 14 and briefly held.
Abdullah worked as a driver for a private company in Diabaly and told UNHCR he was picking up his boss at his home on January 14 "when we were attacked by six men. They were threatening us with their guns and Kalashnikovs and asked for the car keys before taking away the vehicle." He returned home and stayed there with his family as the sounds of gunfire and explosions echoed around the town.
He decided to leave the next morning on foot with his wife and four children, heading south towards the capital. "We joined many other people who were leaving Diabaly. I was carrying my younger son on my shoulders. We went straight to Bamako," Abdullah said.
In their small temporary home, his wife and four children sleep on the bed, while Abdullah bunks down on the floor. "It is normally a room used for storage," he said, adding: "I just want to return to Diabaly and go back to work so that I can take care of my family."