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Today, RI submitted an open letter to the members of the UN Security Council. With the UN scheduled to convene a high-level meeting on the Sahel on September 26, the letter puts before the Council recommendations for assisting and protecting vulnerable populations in the region. It urges Council members to ramp up humanitarian and development assistance in the Sahel, and demands that any UN-approved peacekeeping force in the region protect civilians and support humanitarian efforts.
September 13, 2012
In advance of the high-level Sahel meeting to be convened on September 26, RI remains deeply concerned about the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in Mali and in the region. RI assessed conditions for Malian refugees in neighboring countries in May 2012, and lack of funding for both refugees and host communities, as well as the regional impact of the violence in Mali, threatens to further undermine regional peace and stability. Based on RI’s recent mission to the region, I urge you to use this meeting to highlight the following humanitarian issues.
The eruption of violence and the spread of extremism and lawlessness within Mali cannot be viewed in isolation, but must be seen in the context of the far larger challenges facing the region. At present, the countries of the Sahel are facing a food crisis – the third in seven years – that has affected more than 18 million people and placed one million children at risk of starvation. The conflict in Mali has compounded the situation as humanitarian access to food-insecure populations in northern Mali has been curtailed, and Malian refugees fleeing to neighboring countries have added stress to host communities struggling to meet their own needs. It is of utmost importance that any Security Council measures to address the political and security concerns within Mali avoid any further adverse impacts on the humanitarian situation.
This point is particularly relevant in light of ongoing discussions about the deployment of a UN-supported ECOWAS force to Mali. RI requests that every precaution is taken to ensure that such a deployment does not contribute to a deterioration of the humanitarian situation, or harm civilians in any way. At present, more than 4.6 million people within Mali remain food insecure. Rural communities in northern Mali, in particular, are facing significant challenges accessing food. Any response to the crisis must pay particular attention to the need to avoid further curtailing access to food insecure populations especially in the north.
Humanitarian emergencies are occurring more frequently in the Sahel. Therefore, any strategy to increase security within Mali must incorporate elements to monitor and address the longer-term challenges facing the region including growing food insecurity and more extreme climate variability which continue to undermine development and stability in the Sahel. It is critical that all Secretary General’s reports on the Sahel include information on and recommendations to address climate vulnerability. In regard to this, RI would like to underscore the importance of the the recently-launched Partnership for Resilience to Food Crises in the Sahel (AGIR), a multi-stakeholder initiative that sets out a long-term framework to address the current food crisis and minimize the scale of similar future crises. I urge you to publicly commit your support to this initiative.
Host countries should be commended for opening their borders to Malian refugees, and RI urges you to highlight the generosity of these countries in your statement. Nonetheless, RI is deeply concerned that donor funds provided for the refugee crisis remain grossly inadequate. As of August 14, UNHCR’s revised appeal was only 26 percent funded, and clearly insufficient to meet the even the most basic needs of more than 260,000 refugees in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mauritania. The lack of funding has jeopardized the ability to provide protection and life saving assistance. In Niger, for example, lack of water and hygiene is a major concern in many of the refugee camps, with poor sanitary conditions and water rations well below emergency standards. With the onset of the rainy season, the increased risk of a cholera epidemic has become a major concern.
Several new cases of cholera have been reported in recent weeks. There is also a high incidence of malaria in the camps. In order to limit the regional impacts and fallout from the instability in Mali, Member States must commit to providing robust support to neighboring countries and humanitarian agencies to help respond to the needs of Malian refugees and the local communities that are hosting them.
Regional migration is a way of life and important coping mechanism for Sahelian populations. The return of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from Cote D’Ivoire, as well as from Libya following the fall of the Qaddafi regime, has placed immense pressure on vulnerable households in Mali, Niger, and Chad which no longer are receiving remittances and must feed family members who have returned. Insecurity in Mali and northern Nigeria has further hindered regional migration. The free movement of Malian refugees fleeing to neighboring countries, many of whom are nomadic pastoralists, has also been curtailed. Given the vital role of temporary and long-term migration movements to livelihoods and in helping poor and vulnerable households in the region to cope with food insecurity, it is crucial that measures such as sanctions, border controls, and refugee camp management do not restrict the freedom of movement of Sahelian populations.
RI understands the significant operational challenges host governments, UN agencies, and their partners confront in responding to the needs of the Malian refugees, who are spread out across wide distances in remote and insecure areas near the Malian border, and the preference for moving refugees to camps in order to facilitate assistance and address security concerns. Nonetheless, going forward, we urge host governments to allow more flexible approaches in providing assistance and protection to refugees that take into account the pastoralist character of many of the refugee populations. Such arrangements would have the added benefits of reducing the significant environmental consequences of setting up large camps, while at the same time allowing “freedom of movement” as a central principle of the humanitarian response strategy.
RI is aware of the security concerns of countries hosting refugee populations. Nonetheless, we urge host governments to refrain from establishing a military presence in the camps which risks intimidation and other abuses. We further recommend that police assigned to refugee areas are provided with training on humanitarian principles and human rights.
Do not hesitate to contact me for further information.
President, Refugees International