Care for Malian refugees lacking, Oxfam says

Malian refugees at the Mentao camp in Burkina Faso. Photo by: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam / CC BY-NC-ND

An influx of refugees in Mali’s neighbor countries is stretching the resources of humanitarian groups perhaps a reason for what one NGO now suggests is their slow, insufficient and sometimes ineffective response.

Sexual violence and forced labor are common issues in refugee camps in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, but the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees “has not prioritized” the analysis of and response to these threats “despite a clear mandate to do so,” Oxfam says in a report published Jan. 22.

“Protection has been limited to registration, physical security, and monitoring of some cases of vulnerable people and specific needs,” the group suggests after interviewing representatives of UNHCR, UNICEF and several NGOs in those three countries.

UNHCR has been reinforcing staff across the region following a meeting of top officials in Geneva last week.

Another Oxfam criticism: the delay of a joint World Food Program-UNHCR survey focused on nutrition in Burkina Faso, was had originally been planned for September. WFP’s “often incomplete and delayed food rations” may be part of the reason for the high malnutrition levels in Mauritania and Niger’s refugee camps, Oxfam suggests.

In a YouTube video posted in October, UNHCR said the remoteness of these camps, and their desert surrounding, “have been particularly challenging” for the agency and its partners.

Communication gaps and cultural differences between refugees and aid workers add to the challenges. For instance, some refugees would not use latrines facing east or toward Mecca, considered the holiest city in Islam.

Oxfam listed several recommendations to strengthen the aid community’s humanitarian response in the region, including “more strategic planning under UNHCR’s leadership” and better communication between refugees and aid agencies. Aid groups should also prepare well in advance for a possible influx of refugees, and engage all actors  Malian authorities, host governments and all local, national and international aid agencies  in a “well-coordinated contingency planning process.” The process should be “within weeks, not months,” Oxfam says.

At least 229,000 Malians were displaced by fighting between rebels and government forces in the last 12 months, according to UNHCR. Some 147,000 Malians, meanwhile, have sought refuge in neighboring countries.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.