Bamako — The UN refugee agency said on Friday that the fast-evolving military situation in the north of Mali has raised hopes that many displaced people will be able to go back to their homes soon, but considerable challenges remain.
"To the extent that refugee numbers are a barometer of the situation, UNHCR notes that refugees are still fleeing to neighbouring countries," spokesman Adrian Edwards noted.
In the Mali capital, Bamako, UNHCR staff have interviewed displaced families who say they are ready to return to their homes in the Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal regions as soon as the roads to the north are reopened. Bus services to Gao and Timbuktu have been suspended because of the conflict.
Bus companies in Bamako confirm that they are receiving phone calls from people asking about the resumption of regular services to Douentza, Gao and Timbuktu. Buses are presently travelling only as far as the towns of Mopti and Sevare.
While some of the displaced are eager to return home, reports of unrest and revenge attacks against certain groups are dissuading others. Media and other reports show that Tuareg and Arab minorities, in particular, have been targeted because of their perceived support for the rebels, who have been accused of serious abuses against the population.
And others are deterred by reports of poor conditions. "My friends who remained in Gao told me that many houses had been seriously damaged or destroyed in the north and that we will need assistance to rebuild," said one woman who fled to Bamako last April. "I want to wait and see how the situation will evolve in Gao. The war in the north is not completely over yet," she added.
Shortages of food, fuel and electricity, as well as disruption to basic services such as health and education, are also mentioned by those people who at present prefer to wait and see before returning to the north.
The presence of anti-personnel landmines and unexploded ordnance is also a serious concern, both for the civilian population and aid agencies. Families whose children are attending schools in Bamako, say they will not return to the north until after the end of the school year in June.
Living conditions for the internally displaced in the south are precarious. Families lacking the means to rent houses are sleeping in the open, on roof terraces. The young, in particular, are suffering. "Children get sick [from respiratory diseases], especially because they are sleeping in the open on the roof. We don't have money to pay for medicine; we don't have money to buy them decent clothes," said Aissata, one of the estimated 50,000 internally displaced people in Bamako.
The 43-year-old from Gao added that they lacked blankets, tents and school supplies and she complained about the lack of assistance from the government or aid agencies. "Sometimes my children leave for school on the morning on an empty stomach," she told UNHCR. "We survive thanks to the generosity of our neighbours, who collect money for us so that they can pay our rent and buy food."
Meanwhile, Malian refugees continue to cross into neighbouring countries to flee the fighting or because of fear of reprisals. In Burkina Faso, there are currently more than 43,000 Malian refugees, including 5,411 who arrived since the beginning of the French intervention in Mali on 11 January.
UNHCR is increasing missions to the border areas, such as in the remote village of Inabao where most refugees are arriving, to quickly assist the refugees arriving from Mali and identify their most urgent needs. Most are Arab and Tuareg women and children.
Tuareg men are staying behind to take care of their cattle. This shows that people are increasingly fleeing out of desperation, as the Arab refugees have left behind their commerce and economic activities. The refugees cite fear of aerial bombardments and fear of reprisals as the main reasons for fleeing Mali.
Many refugee families are hiring cars or trucks to take them to the border. New arrivals are met at the border by mobile teams from UNHCR or its partners, and transported to Mentao or Goudebou refugee camps, where they receive assistance, such as hot meals upon arrival and traditional shelter kits, and are immediately individually registered.
As a security measure, UNHCR is relocating refugees from the Damba and Gandafabou sites close to the Malian border, to locations further inside Burkina Faso.
In Mauritania, there are currently just over 64,000 Malian refugees, including 9,904 who arrived since the military intervention in Mali. UNHCR teams on the ground report that 90 per cent of the newly arrived refugees are women and children. Convoys are organized to transport the refugees from the Fassala transit centre near the border to Mbera refugee camp, some 50 kilometres inside Mauritania. Work has started on an extension of the camp, to accommodate future arrivals.
In Niger, the number of recent arrivals remains small. According to the refugees, this is due to the lack of affordable transport. Some recently arrived refugees said they fled the town of Menaka in eastern Mali because of fighting.
There are an estimated 230,000 displaced people inside Mali and more than 150,000 Malian refugees in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria.