Tens of thousands of people are fleeing their homes in northern Mali as clashes escalate between pro- and anti-government armed groups. The U.N. refugee agency reports many of the newly displaced have seen their houses looted and burned and their shops and livestock pillaged.
The number of internally displaced people in Mali, which had been going down, is again surging upwards.
Before this recent escalation of fighting, 43,000 people had not returned to the homes they fled after civil war broke out in 2012. Now, the total number of displaced has increased to slightly more than 100,000.
The U.N. refugee agency reports fighting between the government and various rebel groups is centered in the Gao, Mopti and Timbuktu areas of northern Mali.
UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said the armed groups are a complex, motley mixture of pro-government militia, Tuareg separatists and ethnically-based militias.
“This deterioration of the security situation takes place just days after the signing of the Algiers peace … agreement between the government and several of the armed groups in Bamako on the 15th of May," said Spindler. "So, obviously, this deterioration of the security conditions is very worrying. We are following that closely. But again, our main emphasis and priority are the civilian populations that are being displaced.”
The newly displaced tell aid workers they fled their villages because of fear of violence or forced recruitment by armed groups. Spindler said many are sleeping outdoors and some are staying with friends or relatives in neighboring villages. He said many displaced women and children urgently need shelter, water and food.
“We have great difficulty having access to the area. Information is very scarce … we have received some information from our teams on the ground," said Spindler. "But they are operating under very difficult conditions because of the security. We do not always have access to many of these places. We have done some distributions of aid.”
In addition to internal displacement, the UNHCR reports small numbers of refugees are crossing to neighboring countries following the renewed violence. Since January, it says some 3,500 new refugees have gone to Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger.
Although the numbers are relatively low, Spindler said they are worrying because they seem to be reversing a trend of returns. The Mali government estimates more than 35,000 refugees have returned home since 2013.