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Caroline Baudot, humanitarian policy advisor, describes her experiences working with Oxfam in camps in Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger, hosting refugees fleeing Mali's conflict.
To many in Europe, the conflict in Mali and hostage crisis in Algeria seemed to come out of nowhere. I've been working in the countries around Mali for months. The events of recent weeks shocked me but I know they have deep roots in Mali's history, going back decades. People in Mali and refugees are suffering dreadfully from Mali's conflict - and this is on top of on-going hardship due to a severe food crisis that affected this part of West Africa in 2012.
Already last year, 375,000 people were forced to flee the conflict. 147,000 of those, the majority women and children, escaped to remote parts of neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. Since the escalation in fighting at the beginning of this year, we've seen at least 11,000 more people fleeing their homes and those numbers are likely to rise. In Mali itself, men, women and children are at even more risk as the fighting intensifies and they struggle to find enough food to eat. All this is easily forgotten behind the international headlines of military strategy and counter-terrorism.
In Mentao camp in Burkina Faso, I met an inspiring young woman called Bintou. Before fleeing Mali, she had been studying English in Timbuktu and was looking forward to the future. Now she is worried about putting her studies on hold. When I asked how her life had changed since she became a refugee, she burst out laughing - though I could see that she could have just as easily burst out crying. She described her home, living in a proper house, with concrete walls, several rooms and a roof, in the fabled city of Timbuktu.
The comparison with her current surroundings was stark: in the camps, people live in flimsy shelters and tents in the difficult, unforgiving desert environment of the Sahel. There are few trees to provide shade and water is scarce. In summer, it is scorching hot. During the rainy season, these makeshift shelters are battered by wind and rain, exposed to the elements. While I was in Mentao camp, a downpour flooded the camps within minutes.
Bintou explained: "My whole life has changed. I do not like what happened to me. I do not want to stay here long. I lived in good conditions, I was studying, I had hopes and plans. Here there are no studies, no activities, and no hope. There is nothing to do. I see around me children and young people-people that I knew before, working in NGOs; children were treated well but here they walk barefoot, they do not go to school they are not well fed. Just seeing this hurts me."
In the camps near Burkina Faso's border with Mali, my managers never allowed me to stay there, or even in Oxfam's bases near there, overnight. They felt that would be too dangerous, that I, a white, Western (French) woman could be a target. Now those areas close to Mali's border are even more insecure. Mali's armed groups are just over the border and, we hear, coming across to force refugee children into their ranks. The insecurity has already led aid workers to withdraw from some areas, making it more difficult to get aid to people in need - though vital aid is still getting through. For a country like Burkina Faso, that has traditionally been so peaceful, to find that foreign aid workers can no longer travel safely is quite a shock.
Will the current military action in Mali solve this? Certainly not by itself. What struck me speaking to Mali's refugees is that they're sick and tired of, for many of them, fleeing Mali again and again over the past 20 years. This time, they're not prepared to go home until their country's deep-seated crisis is really sorted out.
Bintou told me: "I want to return to Mali, but provided that there is a lasting peace. In 1993 we were here, in 1994 we were here. Today we are still here. We are refugees all the time. We want the problem of Mali to be managed once and for all."
That will mean 'good governance' in Mali, so that every part of the country feels that the government represents their interests. Mali is poorer than 80 per cent of the countries in the world. There are no quick solutions. But at least it needs an inclusive political settlement so that every community has faith that the state is seeking development for all.
As the world has learnt in many other places, Afghanistan not least, that means a lot more than fighting insurgents. And will take a far longer time. Which I'm afraid means most of Mali's refugees are not likely to return soon; indeed, violence this year may send many more over the borders. And so we're going to have to be ready to support them in neighbouring countries for a very considerable time and support the tens of thousands of people in need in Mali itself.
That's the reality check I'm arguing for in the Oxfam paper we launched this week. The aid effort has done a lot but not nearly enough. In Niger's camps, one in five children are already malnourished. We - aid agencies - as much as governments must urgently step up a gear to prepare for what's likely to be a refugee crisis that could be both larger and longer-lasting than we had anticipated.
Originally published by Oxfam GB Policy & Practice.
Read the report: Mali's Conflict Refugees: Responding to a Growing Crisis
Photo slideshow: Mali refugee crisis hits Sahel
Oxfam press release, 22 January 2013: Situation for Malian refugees set to worsen as fighting escalates