Little Comfort for Mali’s Refugees in Bleak Burkina Faso

Ed note. This is a special guest post from Mark Yarnell of Refugees International. 

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) now estimates that there are about 60,000 Malian refugees spread out across multiple sites – formal and informal – in northern Burkina Faso.

Conditions in that region – where my colleague and I have been traveling – are tough. Driving out to Mentao camp last week, temperatures reached 114 degrees Fahrenheit as we bumped along rough roads. Along the way, we passed miles of dried-out creek beds and rock-hard farm fields awaiting replenishment of the rainy season.

Just waiting for the rains, however, is not the solution here. While the dry season could end as soon as June, rainfall may be erratic and unpredictable even after it starts. Furthermore, while the rains are desperately needed to revive crops and livestock, they will also create major challenges for aid providers by hindering access to camps, spreading water-borne disease, and damaging the temporary shelters.

Refugees fleeing violence in Mali started crossing into Burkina several months ago; some by car, some by donkey cart, and some by foot. Almost universally, their stories are heartbreaking. One man I spoke to today walked for three months, with his herd of sheep, trying to reach safety in Burkina. Another had to abandon his university studies in Bamako, and now lives with his family under a tent. Among the women we met, many wondered how their families would sustain themselves on the limited food rations available.

UNHCR barely had a presence in Burkina before this latest crisis, and has had to ramp-up its activities at a dramatic rate. When signs of displacement first appeared, about 20,000 refugees were expected. Then the number climbed to 30,000, and now UNHCR is preparing for as many as 100,000 refugees if the situation in Mali does not improve.

The delivery of services is improving, with a focus on providing food and water. But additional resources are badly needed to keep the situation from deteriorating. Refugees are running out of what few supplies they brought with them from Mali, and soon they will be relying much more on outside assistance. Also troubling is the fact that the refugees – and their hungry livestock – have arrived in parts of Burkina that were already food-insecure and experiencing recurrent drought. Soon, these host communities will need support as well.

The time is now to avoid a calamity in Burkina Faso. Conditions are so dire that even a minor escalation could bring thousands more to the brink of starvation. Even though the world’s big donors are being stretched thin, this is a case where a strong response now could prevent a true emergency later.

Mark Yarnell is an advocate at Refugees International. Photo credit: Refugees International