U.S. Support for Mali: Humanitarian Needs Must be Considered

By Refugees International
Displaced family in Bamako, Mali

By Katia Gibergues-Newton, Refugees International Intern

The French intervention in Mali has attracted international support primarily because of its regional implications. The fear – shared in the U.S., Europe, and throughout West Africa – is that if left unchecked, Al-Qaeda inspired groups like Ansar Dine and MUJAO could turn northern Mali into a safe haven for terrorist operations across north and western Africa. Indeed, many regard the recent hostage crisis at In Amenas, Algeria, as just the tip of the iceberg. The Obama administration, at first reticent to engage in a new war, has now pledged $96 million to support the French and African military operations there.

The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs will hold a hearing tomorrow to press the Obama administration on its plans “to work with African forces to rid the region of militants,” in the words of the committee’s chairman, Ed Royce. The hearing will most likely focus on security and counter-terrorism, but there are humanitarian concerns that must not be neglected.   

The recent conflict has a major impact on the humanitarian situation in Mali. Since the onset of the crisis a year ago, more than 400,000 Malians have fled their homes. Worse yet, at the time the crisis erupted, Mali and its neighbors were struggling to cope with a food crisis that affected 18 million people – 5 million of whom were Malian – and placed one million children at risk of starvation. The conflict in the north has significantly hindered humanitarian access to food-insecure populations that remain in the north. At the same time, Malian refugees have fled to areas of neighboring countries that are among those hardest hit by the food crisis, and where local populations themselves lack sufficient food, water, and animal fodder. Malian civilians have also been subjected to other hardships and atrocities, including torture, mutilation, rape, and mass killings, for which there has been little aid and limited accountability. In the face of this escalating emergency, it is imperative that the U.S. not overlook the unmet humanitarian needs of the Malian people.

To date, only a fraction of the humanitarian needs in Mali have been funded. Out of the $373 million sought by the UN’s 2013 Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP) for Mali, only $10 million has been committed. The European Union recently committed $26 million for humanitarian aid in Mali, but not to fund projects listed in the CAP. American humanitarian aid to Mali is also limited, and it could be cut further if sequestration kicks in later this year.

This significant funding shortfall is having severe repercussions on the ground, especially for Malian women and children. In some refugee camps, malnutrition rates among children are above 20 percent; the threshold to qualify as an emergency is 15 percent. The majority of Malian refugee children have been without education for close to a year, while women and children who suffered physical and emotional trauma lack sufficient care. Assistance to internally displaced Malians now living in the country’s south has also been very limited. At tomorrow’s hearing, Committee members should ask why these needs have not been met, and also make clear their support for additional humanitarian aid.