Mali: UNHCR Gearing Up to Support Possible Spontaneous Returns in Mali

press release

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 29 January 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

With the fast-evolving situation in Mali, UNHCR is readying itself to assist in the possible spontaneous return of thousands of conflict-displaced people in the north of the country. We aim to open new presences in Gao and other cities in the north as soon as it becomes feasible. So far, insecurity has hampered humanitarian access to the north.

From interviews over the past few days in Bamako with internally displaced people, it appears that many are hoping to return soon to areas including Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

Returns are not yet a wide trend, but they are already being seen in some instances. In the central Mali town of Konna, for example, a UN security evaluation mission has confirmed that people are coming back. Up to half the town's population of 10,000 was earlier reported as having fled into the surrounding countryside when Konna was overrun by rebel fighters on 10 January, prompting the French military intervention.

Despite the indications of growing interest in returns, conditions in the north of the country are difficult. People recently displaced from the north have reported serious shortages of food, clean water and fuel. Electricity, transport, communications, access to health and education is said to have been severely disrupted.

In Kidal and Tessalit in the north, the supply of food and other essential items has been seriously affected by the conflict and the closure of the border with Algeria, across which many goods used to be imported.

Hundreds of people are reported to have fled Kidal in recent days to villages further north, even closer to the Algerian border. Others have crossed into Algeria, despite the border being officially closed.

Tension between ethnic communities is reported in various parts of the country. In particular, members of the Tuareg and Arab communities are being blamed by other groups for supporting the separatist rebellion which led to the present conflict.

UNHCR appeals to community leaders and to the Malian authorities to give urgent priority to initiatives to promote peace and reconciliation between various ethnic groups.

UNHCR is urgently bringing into Mali relief items for 9,000 families (some 54,000 people), including sleeping mats, blankets, plastic tarpaulins, jerry-cans, mosquito nets and cooking utensils. A distribution of relief items is scheduled to start today in the town of Mopti, where an estimated 40,000 people are internally displaced.

In all, some 380,000 people have fled northern Mali since the start of the conflict a year ago. This includes 230,000 who are internally displaced, and more than 150,000 who are living as refugees in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria.

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