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Malian Refugees in Desperate State After UN Halts Services

By Marcy Hersh
Mint Sidi in front of her shelter at Mbera camp, Mauritania. Reuters Photo

This post originally appeared at SahelNOW.

Mbera is the biggest refugee camp that you've never heard of. With a population of more than 70,000 refugees, Mbera is the sixth largest camp in the world. It is located in a remote area of Mauritania near the border with Mali, and since early 2012, a mix of Tuareg and Arab refugees from northern Mali have fled across the border into this highly arid region.

Mauritania’s Malian refugee population is the largest in the region, and due to the extremely challenging environmental conditions in and around Mbera, these refugees rely completely on outside aid for food, water, shelter, and medical care. Their needs are immense and merit a similarly immense response.

Unfortunately, so far the humanitarian effort in Mbera has been far from adequate. Recent reports from the camp have identified a number of extremely worrying trends. For example, while the majority of refugees did not have major health problems before arriving in Mbera, their health has since deteriorated rapidly – the result of poor living conditions, inadequate food, and severe water shortages. Most distressingly, more than 13 percent of children under five are suffering from global acute malnutrition, a level globally recognized as “serious” and demanding urgent intervention.

Shelter materials have not been readily available and refugees have had to wait for more than four weeks to receive them. In the meantime, refugees are living in makeshift shelters constructed from sticks and debris that provide little privacy, safety, or protection from the searing sun.

In the desert region where Mbera is located, neither refugees nor their Mauritanian neighbors have sufficient access to clean drinking water. An international NGO working in the camp reports that refugees receive just 11 liters of water per person per day, instead of the 20 liters recommended by international standards.

Distributing food has been particularly challenging, since the refugees’ traditional diet of milk and meat cannot be replicated by the World Food Program, which has been distributing its usual rations of grains and pulses. Refugees admit to selling some of these rations in local markets to buy milk and meat for their family.

This insufficient response has fomented extreme tension between refugees and some humanitarians working in the camp. Things came to a head this month, when a UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) exercise concluded that there were many fewer refugees living in Mbera relative to the number of ration cards distributed. On September 5th, UNHCR confiscated 6,500 ration cards, claiming that refugees had registered more than once or had left the camp without notifying camp authorities. This led to a violent reaction from certain groups of refugees, who stormed humanitarian warehouses and stole 15 tons of food and other supplies.

As a result of this violence, UNHCR significantly reduced its activities in Mbera, to the frustration of the refugees. The most problematic element of the drawdown is that UNHCR suspended its activities in the middle of the September food ration distribution. As a result, 15,000 refugees failed to receive their rations and are surviving only because other refugees have been generous enough to share their own food. These rations are not designed to be shared amongst so many people, which means that malnutrition rates in Mbera are sure to rise, further endangering this already vulnerable population.

The needs in Mbera are severe and immediate, and humanitarians must work urgently to restore all emergency aid, including food distributions. But a short-term fix will not be enough. The camp will continue to be a home to tens of thousands of refugees for a significant amount of time. Northern Mali’s ethnic and political divisions remain unresolved, and few basic services in the region have been restored, so there is little prospect of Mbera’s refugees returning home in the near future. The bigger challenge for aid agencies will be to put in place long-term plans that will bring living conditions in the camp up to acceptable humanitarian standards.

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