Some 70,000 refugees from Mali are living in difficult conditions in the middle of the Mauritanian desert, with ethnic tensions in northern Mali quashing any hopes of a swift return home.
A report released today by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) entitled “Stranded in the desert” calls on aid organisations to urgently renew efforts to meet the refugees’ basic needs.
The report, based on testimonies collected from over 100 refugees in Mbera refugee camp in Mauritania, examines the reasons for the refugees fleeing and reveals the underlying complexity of the crisis in neighbouring Mali.
While the crisis could last for months or even years, the refugees face a future of isolation in the middle of the desert, totally dependent on outside assistance and humanitarian aid.
"In northern Mali, entire communities are currently displaced within their country or have escaped abroad as refugees," says Henry Gray, emergency coordinator for MSF. "Most of the refugees are from the Tuareg and Arab communities.
They fled pre-emptively, often for fear of violence due to their presumed links with Islamist or separatist groups. Their home in northern Mali is still in the grip of fear and mistrust."
MSF has been working in Mauritania since the arrival of the first refugees in early 2012, and has frequently warned of the alarming consequences to the refugees' health as a result of the appalling living conditions in Mbera camp.
In November 2012 MSF conducted a retrospective nutritional mortality survey that revealed a critical nutrition situation, with mortality rates above the emergency threshold for children under two years old.
The medical situation has further worsened following an influx of 15,000 new refugees in the aftermath of the January 2013 joint French and Malian military intervention.
The number of consultations in MSF's clinics in the Mbera camp has increased from 1,500 to 2,500 per week. The number of children admitted per week for severe malnutrition has more than doubled, from 42 to 106. 85 percent of the children under treatment arrived in the camp between January and February; despite the nutritional status of the new refugees being generally good when assessed on arrival in the camp.
"These statistics show that the refugees have grown weaker whilst in the camp, the very place where they should have been receiving assistance, including correctly formulated food rations from aid organisations," says Gray. "There has clearly been a lack of preparation for this new influx of refugees.
The situation has improved in recent weeks but it is still extremely precarious and aid organisations need to maintain their humanitarian response for as long as necessary. Shelter, clean water, latrines, hygiene and food must all reach those in need, and be sustained at the minimum humanitarian standards."
MSF runs medical and humanitarian programmes in the Malian regions of Mopti, Gao, Sikasso and Timbuktu, as well as for Malian refugees in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger.
In Mauritania, MSF supports four primary health care centres in the Mbera camp and at the Fassala border crossing post, and runs an operating theatre in the town of Bassikounou. Since starting to work in Mauritania in February 2012, MSF teams have provided 85,000 consultations, assisted 200 deliveries and treated nearly 1,000 children suffering from severe malnutrition.
Download the report: Stranded in the Desert (PDF)