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Sahel: War and food crisis, the ‘uncomfortable’ guests 0

Nouakchott (Mauritania), Niamey (Niger) and Bamako (Mali)Sahel region is facing a double crisis. The first one is linked to an armed conflict between Malian military forces and Tuareg rebels in Northern Mali where thousands of people had to flee the area in order to find safe in neighbouring countries. The second is linked to a food crisis that is affecting the whole Sahel belt where people share what they have with the Malian refugees. The Afronline’s report from Mauritania, Niger and Mali.

Welcome to Mauritania

A truck stops in front of the police headquarters in Fassala, a town in southeastern Mauritania, on the border with Mali. On board there are twenty people, women and children mainly and only a few men, most of them elderly. Their eyes are dark and their faces tired as they wait for their turn in a seemingly endless queue. Every one of them will need to be registered before being admitted to a refugee camp that according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) counts with over 35,0000 Malian refugees fleeing the armed conflicts between the Tuareg rebels from the north of Mali and the Malian military forces.

The camp is made up of the usual patchwork of UNHCR tents and plastic tarpaulins held up with sticks. Most of the refugees come from Léré and Timbuktu. They have left everything, or almost, behind. Many say they left before the fighting broke out in January for fear of being trapped by the conflict. There had been fighting in the 90s too, a decade which marked the beginning of the conflict between the Tuareg and the Malian state.

Out of 172,000  refugees 90,000 decided to flee abroad. They aren’t just running away from the war but the famine as well which is partly caused by the rise in the price of basic food goods. The rule is the same for all: save their families. “The fighting is between the rebels and the military. We just want to live in peace,” says Adballah to Radio France International (RFI). But as soon as you mention the war, opinions differ.

Lamine Kunta has chosen the rebel camps grouped under the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). “They are the sons of our nation and their rights are being trampled on. They are seeking justice and they are right to fight” claims one Malian refugee from Léré who arrived in Fassala with ten family members. “It doesn’t matter that we are forced to flee and live in such precarious conditions, we support those who are seeking the liberation of Azawad”. In the camp the living conditions are hard. Meat, vegetables and most of all water are scarce, especially since drought has hit the whole region. Showers and latrines are inexistent.

The camp healthcare centre has launched a measles vaccination scheme for 7,000 children, both refugees and Fassala natives. There are more than 200 malnourished children hidden among the UNHCR tents.

Safety is a priority

Initially the transfer to the M’Béré camp was expected to take place at the beginning of March, but it was anticipated on 22 February with a first convoy of 274 families (about 1,370 people) followed by another 1,265 families 24 hours later. “People will be installed in the most permanent kind of situations possible” ensures Jamel Nasser, of a local NGO called ARDM. “Many claim that they are not ready to return to Mali”.

The decision to move the refugees to M’Béré is not a coincidence. “Our first priority is safety” says Philippe Creppy, the UNHCR special envoy for humanitarian support. “Being farther away from the Malian border means we are safer than in Fassala, not just for the refugees but for the aid workers too. Moreover, the camp can hold up to 30,000 people”.

Managing this many refugees, however, is no easy matter. Aside from sheer numbers, there are the 1,400 kilometers that separate M’Béré from Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital. Transporting humanitarian aid is expensive, estimates for all humanitarian assistance indicate around US$70 million (€53,6 million) in 2012 alone, 62 million more than the budget originally drawn up by the UNHCR prior to the arrival of the Malians.

The true extent of the crisis caused by the conflict in Mali is captured by the calculation that 50 per cent of the UNHCR funds allocated to refugees in Northern Africa will go towards managing Mauritania’s refugees.  In conditions such as these it is doubtful whether anything more than basic services can actually be provided. Unfortunately, the refugee crisis has intensified the food crisis in Mauritania’s rural areas.

‘Emel 2012’

The government has already launched its emergency plan, ‘Emel (Hope) 2012’. The plan, which is equipped with US$157 million (€120 million), will distribute food products at discounted prices. All of the national humanitarian agencies are working hard to front the crisis along with international organizations, the European Union and other donors. All are trying to meet the needs of the refugees without ignoring the needs of local populations affected by drought. The challenge is as great as it is complicated.

Double crisis in Niger

Proof can be found in another Sahel country that is being forced to shelter Malian refugees. Out of 15.7 million people surveyed in Niger, more than 5 million are exposed to a grave food crisis and another 2.3 million are considered to be at risk. According to official national statistics the bad harvests in 2011 caused a cereal deficit of around 602 thousand tons and a fodder deficit of over 10 million tons.

While dealing with the food crisis, the government has also had to face a second emergency: thousands of Malian refugees spilling into Tillabéri, in western Niger. “The influx of Malian refugees has highlighted the precarious conditions that Tillabérians live in – this year they have harvested almost nothing” explains Amadou Tidjani, who is in charge of communications at the International Red Cross in Niamey. “Prior to the arrival of food aid we were forced to share the few food products remaining with the refugees” remembers Zakari Djibo, an inhabitant of Chinagoder, a village that has given shelter to over 8,000 Malian refugees.

Another 20,000 refugees poured across the border in early January, approximately 500 a day. “These refugees are likely to stay here for a while and we are need of a far greater influx of aid, especially because aid in this region is already scarce” says Moussa Tchangari, Secretary general of a local association, Alternative Espace Citoyens (AEC). According to the Nigerian government €152 million are needed to meet the food crisis. The International Red Cross estimated that €10 million are needed to help 700,000 people in Niger (in Tillabéri and Agadez) and in Mali (in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu).

The Malian trap

From Bamako, the Malian Commissioner for Food Security reveals that “drought is a threat for many of the country’s regions. Last year Mali grew 8 million tons of cereals, this year only 5 million, which is why there is a such a large food deficit now”. But the figures don’t reflect the true picture: according to data provided by the Ministry for Agriculture, last year cereal production reached no more than 1.75 million tons.

In the capital city’s main markets, prices have risen to the stars. Although it is harvest time, dry cereals cost as much as they do during the rest of the year. According to the NGOs the delayed response of the Malian government to this productive deficit has aggravated the crisis. Oxfam estimates that the drought could affect more than a million people whereas Caritas believes this many people have already been affected.

There are multiple causes for the food insecurity,” claims Caritas. Their list includes bad rain season, bad harvests and “the increasing insecurity in the north of the country where the MLNA Tuareg and the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) carry out guerrilla warfare against the State causing thousands of people to flee to areas in which it will be difficult to find food for them”.

In order to face the emergency the government has allowed people to import rice from across the border without having to pay taxes on the imports and thus be able to sell at more reasonable prices.  In the conflict-affected north, free cereal distribution is “expected” along with the distribution of other food goods “but only if safety can be secured”, explained a spokesperson from the Commission for Food Security.

By Ian Mansour de Grange (Mauritania), Ousseini Issa (Niger) and Alexis Kalambry (Mali) –

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Direttore Responsabile Giuseppe Frangi