The escalating conflict in Mali between French-backed government forces and Tuareg and Islamist rebels is creating a new wave of civilian displacement that is straining already scarce resources and deepening the humanitarian crisis in Mali and neighbouring countries, says ACT Alliance General Secretary John Nduna.
“The vast and vulnerable western Sahel region has long suffered from entrenched poverty, chronic food insecurity and conflict. This renewed fighting in Mali comes on the heels of last year’s food crisis and has the potential to worsen an already fragile humanitarian situation in the region, as more civilians find themselves in need of live-saving essentials,” explains Nduna.
Fighting between rebels and government forces broke out in January last year, after which rebels took control of the northern regions of Mali following a coup d’état in March. The conflict escalated on January 11 this year, when France answered the Malian government’s call for military assistance to push back the rebel’s southern advance after they captured the strategic central town of Konna.
Drawing the entire region further into the crisis, the President of Cote d’Ivoire and head of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Alassane Ouattara, has pledged to send 6,000 troops from the region to assist the French-led offensive against the Islamists in the north.
According to recent estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other relevant UN bodies, more than 150,000 people have fled the fighting to neighbouring Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger, while approximately 230,000 have been internally displaced.
ACT steps up
In response, ACT Mali is expanding its humanitarian activities with plans to provide support to 50,000 internally displaced people, primarily families, school children and malnourished children living with host families. Most of the internally displaced are living in extremely overcrowded, difficult conditions in urban centres or rented houses, relying primarily on relatives for support, explains Prosper Sapathy of ACT Mali from the capital, Bamako.
ACT has also been supporting Malian refugees who fled to neighbouring Mauritania and Niger over the past year. The refugees in these countries are living among impoverished host communities that are still recovering from the region-wide food crisis last year that has affected more than 18 million people. These host populations are themselves struggling to get by in the face of poverty, limited food and access to basic social services. Now they find themselves having to share their already scarce food and water sources.
Civilians who have been unable to leave northern Mali are subject to violence and human rights violations and are receiving little if any humanitarian assistance, since most aid organisations have had limited access to the northern areas since the rebel takeover last year.
“We’re receiving fresh reports from civilians who have escaped the fighting in the north of food depots being destroyed by rebels as they flee. There is a huge unmet need for assistance in the north, and we’re working to secure expanded humanitarian access there,” says Sapathy, who also represents the West African regional office for ACT member, the Inter-Church Organisation for Development Cooperation (ICCO). Reprisal attacks by Malian forces against Tuareg civilians during their northern offensive have also been widely reported in recent days.
In response to this news Nduna urges that “all parties take the necessary steps to prevent harm to civilians, especially women and children, and allow unrestricted access and safe passage to agencies who seek to provide humanitarian aid to those in need.”
He concludes with an international call to action. “The current level of humanitarian assistance to countries in the Sahel is already strained. This intensified conflict is stretching resources even further. The international community must remain mindful of the challenges facing Mali and its neighbours, and increase humanitarian and development support accordingly,” concludes Nduna.
The ACT response is being closely coordinated with the UN Organisation for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), local authorities and other non-governmental organisations. ACT estimates that 1.2 million Euro will be needed to fund its immediate work to provide emergency food, water, shelter and medical care to 50,000 internally displaced Malians.
In addition to ICCO, the following ACT members are working in Mali: Christian Aid, Norwegian Church Aid, Diakonia Sweden and Lutheran World Relief. ACT founding member, The Lutheran World Federation, has been providing assistance to Malian refugees in Mauritania.