The U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, Thursday appealed to West African states not to forcibly repatriate refugees who have fled escalating insecurity and violence sparked by insurgent groups in Burkina Faso.
“As of June this year, 67,000 people from Burkina Faso have sought refuge in neighboring countries, including Mali, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, Benin and Ghana,” said Elizabeth Tan, UNHCR director of international protection, briefing journalists in Geneva on Friday.
“The number of internally displaced people is enormous,” she said. “Two million people are internally displaced within Burkina Faso, making this one of the worst internal displacement crises on the African continent.”
The UNHCR said it was updating an advisory on forced returns that it issued last July because humanitarian and security conditions in Burkina Faso have seriously deteriorated since then.
Tan said, “The reason why the update is because the parts of Burkina Faso that are now impacted by violence and conflict and insecurity has expanded. So, the parts of the country where it is not safe to return people to has increased.”
While growing numbers of people are fleeing across borders in search of international protection, she said the number of internally displaced in Burkina Faso is surging.
“There has been internal displacement since 2015, but it is in 2022 that we have really seen a large increase in the number of displaced in the country, and that is due to the increased activities by violent extremist groups as well as increasing humanitarian need,” she said.
She noted that Islamist armed groups in the Sahel, such as those allied with al-Qaida and Islamic State militants, have caused enormous displacement and destruction to civilian infrastructure.
She said they are responsible for widespread human rights violations against civilians including targeted killings, forced disappearances, torture and kidnappings.
“Children are also exposed to serious human rights violations such as forced recruitment by armed groups, child labor as well as other types of violence, abuse, exploitation and gender-based violence.”
She said most displaced children are unable to attend school because attacks on schools have forced more than 6,300 to close.
Ongoing violence and displacement have also left many women vulnerable to gender-based violence, she notes.
Since last year’s appeal for a ban on forcible returns was issued, Tan said Ghana has forcibly returned several hundred asylum seekers to Burkina Faso. She said the UNHCR has had discussions with the government of Ghana and while forcible returns have somewhat subsided, she said the UNHCR remained concerned about that situation.
“We understand ... the intense security concerns that countries in the region have with regard to population movements. Nevertheless,” Tan said, “the majority of people fleeing are women and children and we are working with governments to ensure that the civilian character of asylum is maintained.”
She expressed concern about the situation in Niger, a major country of asylum currently hosting 300,000 refugees from Burkina Faso, Mali and Nigeria and 350,000 internally displaced people.
Following the military coup this week that overthrew the country’s president, she said “we are monitoring developments very closely” adding that “for the time being our humanitarian operations are still able to take place.”
There are currently 4.3 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Niger, she said.
UNHCR protection director Tan said the prevailing situation in Burkina Faso is also precarious for people dependent on international aid for survival.
“An estimated 4.7 million people across the country are now in need of humanitarian assistance and over 20 percent of the country’s population is among those who are in need of humanitarian assistance,” she said.