Make No Mistake: Mali’s Displacement Crisis Isn’t Over

Ed note. This guest post from Michelle Brown of Refugees International nicely complements the video from UNICEF I posted earlier in the day. 

Mopti, Mali More than a year ago, families fled northern Mali in droves after insurgents there routed Malian forces. While some of those families became refugees in nearby countries, most simply fled to the country’s south.

Today, with the insurgents largely pushed back, Malians are beginning to return to the north. However, tens of thousands remain in the south, uncertain when is the right time to return home.

This week, I and my colleagues from Refugees International visited the city of Mopti, where Mali’s Sahelian south and Saharan north meet. During the height of the violence last year, tens of thousands of northern Malians made Mopti their home. Most stayed with so-called “host families,” often distant relatives who would open their homes to as many as three or four families. Others with no family connections chose to shelter in a temporary camp set up on the outskirts of town.

That’s where, earlier this week, we meet Fatouma. She watched as others from the camp made the decision to return north, but has decided to stay in Mopti for now. When I asked her why she hadn’t yet gone back, she said, “It’s not safe to go home. I am afraid.”

Fatouma and others like her are right to be concerned. This week, insurgents launched a series of attacks on the city of Gao, firing mortars into the town and setting off explosions on two bridges. These attacks followed a suicide bombing just a few weeks ago in the northern town of Timbuktu. Insecurity in the north persists, and both Malian security forces and United Nations peacekeepers remain ill equipped to respond.

This insecurity is also hampering the work of humanitarian organizations, who can only deliver aid to a small number of locations across the north. That lack of access imperils not only the recent returnees, but also the people who chose not to flee in the first place – who, by all accounts, are even more vulnerable. “There’s no food in Timbuktu,” said one of Fatouma’s relatives, hugging an infant to her chest. “How will I feed my children?”

In the meantime, Fatouma and her relatives have little choice but to stay in Mopti. Some estimates suggest that as many as 19,000 northerners still live in the town, primarily in the crowded homes of thousands of host families. Most of these families are not receiving any assistance, while those who have are exhausting their meager resources. With some households hosting more than 20 displaced people, food, fuel, and water are running out quickly. On top of that, Mali has experienced a short rainy season this year, and the ensuing poor harvest could make the situation more difficult.

In recent weeks, the dominant narrative among Malian officials – and their partners in Washington and European capitals – has focused on returning displaced people to the north and figuring out how to support them. Some humanitarians working in Mali are concerned that the Malian government is encouraging people to return before it is safe to do so.

With victory over the insurgents in the north having been declared, and with UN peacekeepers steadily increasing their presence, there is a temptation to consider the displacement crisis near an end. But this would be premature. Conditions in many parts of the north are still not conducive for any large-scale population returns.

For as long as the security situation in the north remains unsettled, displaced people will require additional humanitarian assistance. Currently, donors have only provided 37 percent of the money the UN needs to address humanitarian needs in Mali, and they clearly must increase their funding. At the same time, humanitarian agencies and the Malian government must increase assistance to those who fled to the south and the families who are supporting them.  Failure to do so could bring even greater misery to those who have already suffered too much.

Michelle Brown is Senior Advocate and United Nations Representative at Refugees International.