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March 01, 2013

UNHCR Says Malian Refugees Fearful of Going Home

by Lisa Schlein

The United Nations refugee agency reports the number of internally displaced people in Mali and refugees in neighboring countries remains high and in some areas is growing.  The UNHCR says the displaced and refugees are fearful of returning home despite improvements in the security situation in northern Mali. 

The U.N. refugee agency estimated more than 430,000 Malians were uprooted by the conflict that began last year.  It warns this displacement crisis is likely to become long-lasting unless the country's ethnic groups learn to co-exist peacefully. 

The agency says it is currently planning support for reconciliation in areas of displacement and returns, as well as in refugee camps.  But, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards notes these efforts cannot go forward until refugees and the displaced return to the homes they fled.  And, this, he says is a major problem because people are too afraid to return home.

"For IDP's (internally displaced persons) and refugees alike the primary worry remains insecurity," he said. "Continued fighting, suicide attacks, reprisal attacks against some communities, the presence of mines and unexploded ordinance in the regions of Mopti, Gao, and Timbuktu, are all cited as reasons to delay returning.  However, the absence of services in the north is very clearly also a factor.  Few schools are functioning there.  Government authorities are still absent in many towns and cities and many displaced families prefer simply to wait." 

A Tuareg rebellion for independence in northern Mali broke out in January 2012.  Two months later, army officers overthew the Malian president.  The Tuaregs launched an effort to seize the north, only to be pushed aside by al-Qaida-linked Islamist groups who imposed harsh forms of Sharia on the region.

In January, French forces succeeded in chasing the militants from their strongholds.   While this action has improved security and access to northern Mali, the situation there remains very fragile and uncertain.

UNHCR spokesman Edwards says very few IDPs staying in the capital Bamako are returning to their northern homes.  He says refugees in neighboring countries share this reluctance to return.

"For those outside Mali, an additional complication is the ethnic make-up, as a majority of the refugees are Tuareg or Arab.  Fear of reprisal attacks is widespread, as is fear of criminality or that jihadists might remain present in the community," said the spokesman.

Edwards says new refugee numbers are substantially lower now than a few weeks ago.  Nevertheless, he says refugees, albeit in smaller numbers, are continuing to flee Mali.  He notes the number of new arrivals in Mauritania last month averaged more than 1,500 a week, while refugee numbers in Burkina Faso and Niger are static.