The United Nations refugee agency reports more than 20,000 people who have fled violence in Mali over the past three weeks are in urgent need of help. The UNHCR says it has sent emergency teams to countries surrounding Mali to help the thousands of refugees who have been forced to flee their homes.
The exodus began in mid-January. That is when fighting between rebel Tuareg groups and government forces in the Azawad region of northern Mali began. Most of the estimated 20,000 people who have fled the violence are in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
U.N. refugee spokesman Adrian Edwards told VOA his agency was caught unprepared by the renewed fighting and its destabilizing impact.
“This is a region, which to us, has been relatively quiet for some time and our presence has been very small. So, what we are doing now is rapidly beefing up and pinning down details as we go," said Edwards. "We still are in a situation, I think, of assessing needs and numbers and we have missions on the way to some of these areas to do that. The numbers, as I mentioned, are still reported estimates, and we do not have a system yet in place, the classic situation that you describe of red camps, of registered arrivals. It is not that orderly.”
For example, Edwards noted many of the new arrivals in Niger, who are from the city of Menaka in Mali, are settled very close to the volatile border. He said many are sleeping in the open and have little access to shelter, clean water, health services, and food.
Fighting between the Tuareg liberation movement and governmental forces resumed on January 17 in Mali, breaking a 2009 agreement that had officially ended the Tuareg rebellion.
The Tuareg are a nomadic tribe in North and West Africa. They have launched several revolts in Mali and Niger. The late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi engaged many of the Tuareg ex-rebels as mercenaries. Many have been returning home since the civil war in Libya ended.
UNHCR spokesman Edwards said he has heard, but cannot confirm, reports that Tuareg rebels returning from Libya are behind the current fighting in Mali.
“The political context behind this is perhaps for others to comment on, but clearly we are dealing with a situation post-Libya crisis. You saw the fighting re-erupted on January 17 - I think is seen as the starting point for this," he said. "It has, however, been a region - historically - of a number of rebellions and clashes. It certainly is a tragedy that we are seeing that again.”
Edwards said the UNHCR is responding as quickly as it can to the new emergency. He said four additional staff members are in Niger and more are on their way. He said the UNHCR plans to send relief items for 10,000 people in Niger from its stockpiles in the region.
He also said some 3,000 Malian refugees are in Burkina Faso, and an estimated 9,000 have newly arrived in Mauritania.