Bamako — As the conflict escalates in Mali between government and international troops and armed groups, World Vision is concerned that a growing number of people are trapped in the conflict, unable to flee and without access to humanitarian aid. Because of almost no access to the north, it is extremely difficult to calculate how many have fled.
"In just the past two weeks, we've had reports of up to than 30,000 people fleeing to the southern part of Mali to escape the violence in the North," said Chance Briggs, Director of World Vision in Mali.
"Though significant, these numbers are still much lower than we would expect, especially in the past few days since the conflict has intensified. We're worried about the thousands of children and families who remain in the north, right in the crosshairs of conflict, cut off from any hope of assistance."
Also concerning are reports of armed groups recruiting child soldiers. UNICEF estimates that hundreds of boys are being recruited into armed groups, and the reality is this number is likely to be much higher. The United Nations stated in a recent report that children as young as 10 have been seen manning checkpoints.
"Conflict brings so much more than just the obvious threat of bombs or bullets and the physical and psychological effects they have on to children.
We're worried about the other consequences in the chaos of families forced to quickly flee their homes, especially if they are unable to reach help," said Briggs. "We've received reports of children separated from their families, which leaves them highly vulnerable to other unseen dangers like sexual violence, forced recruitment by armed groups, and fatal diseases such as cholera and malaria."
World Vision has called on all those involved in the conflict to ensure that fleeing civilians are offered safe passage.
"We want all involved to respect their responsibilities under international humanitarian law. We urge the governments involved to use all influence to ensure human rights are respected and that safe passage is given," said Briggs.
Almost five million Malians are affected by the three crises hitting the country namely, food, nutrition and conflict. More than 400,000 people have already been forced to flee their homes, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Humanitarian organizations in Mali estimate that if the conflict continues to escalate, the number of displaced people could reach 700,000, out of a pre-conflict Northern population of less than 1 million.
"Numbers that become more concerning given the low levels of funding for humanitarian aid in the region. With a funding shortage even before this new fighting, there is a risk that if tens of thousands of people flee to safe areas already strained, communities will be overwhelmed and the newly displaced will suffer without adequate resources.
World Vision urges governments, private citizens, companies, foundations, and others, to continue their commitment and properly fund this important response, so that an even worse humanitarian crisis can be prevented."
To assist the most vulnerable in this conflict, World Vision has been distributing food to host communities where displaced people have settled. This lessens the burdens for those communities already hit hard by last year's food crisis. World Vision has sent teams to affected areas to distribute information about how to keep children safe as the conflict continues.
Through schools, churches and mosques, children are being advised not to talk to strangers and not to play with strange objects, which could be landmines or unexploded ordinance. In the coming weeks, the organization hopes to expand its efforts to target a wider number of displaced people, providing them with food, hygiene kits and kitchen sets.