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Not So Fast: Rush to Return Malians Carries Risks

By Michelle Brown

On October 11, a boat carrying roughly 400 displaced Malians returning to their homes in the north capsized on the Niger River. According to press reports, 72 people have been confirmed dead, many of them school children. This tragedy is a stark reminder of how difficult it will be to bring displaced Malians home again.

Though accurate statistics are hard to come by, it is believed that roughly 500,000 Malians fled to neighboring countries or to safer regions in southern Mali when violence erupted in the north in January 2012. The Malian government is keen to have these refugees and displaced people return to their homes in the north, and they tout the returns as proof that the insurgents have been defeated and life in Mali is “back to normal.”

One displaced woman in Bamako told me that “the government came on the radio and told us that it was safe to return home.” Several families living in the compound where she rents a small room heard that message and returned to Gao and Timbuktu. In fact, just a few days after the tragic accident on the Niger River, the government organized a “Peace Boat” to carry even more displaced people to the north.

It’s not difficult to see why many Malians are responding to the government’s message of return. Parents of displaced children are eager for them to begin the school year at home. Many families found the cost of uniforms and school supplies in Bamako to be prohibitive, so their children have not attended classes in a year. In addition, living conditions in Bamako are extremely difficult for many displaced families. All but a few live with host families or rent houses scattered throughout the city, which makes it quite difficult for humanitarian agencies to identify and assist them.

Marie, like nearly every displaced person I met in Bamako, said that she “can’t stop worrying” about how she will make ends meet. “I worry about how I will feed my children,” she told me. “I worry about how I will pay my rent. I can’t think about anything else.”

Yet returning to the north also has its dangers, and humanitarian actors have rightfully decided not to support returns until the situation there improves. The French-led military offensive weakened but failed to eliminate the Al Qaeda-linked insurgents operating in the north, as evidenced by recent attacks in Timbuktu and Gao. And basic services that returnees will need – from water and electricity supplies to police patrols – have still not been restored.

Many of the displaced people we interviewed in Bamako said that friends and family who returned to the north were fully aware of the volatile security situation there, but they could no longer survive in Bamako and had no choice but to return. The dozens who died last week on the Niger River likely made the same decision: if they had to suffer, then they would do so in their own homes.

It is a core humanitarian principle that displaced people should be returned only under conditions that are voluntary, safe, and dignified. Clearly, those conditions do not exist in Mali today, so humanitarian agencies should hold firm and not encourage or support displaced people who want to return to the north. The security situation is simply too fluid and humanitarian conditions too dire for humanitarians to alter their position. Supporting returns would be irresponsible.

This month’s boat tragedy should be a wake-up call to the Malian government. Its calls for large-scale returns are motivated by political considerations rather than the safety and well-being of its population. The government must urgently change its public information campaign to include accurate information about the security situation in the north and the services that are available to those who choose to return.

The government must also ensure that basic safeguards are in place during the journey home. Until conditions in the north improve to the extent that people can return in safety and dignity, the onus is on the government to protect all citizens who choose to go home.

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