More than two million people have been forced to flee their homes within their own countries’ borders owing to the violence engulfing Africa’s Sahel region, the United Nations refugee agency has said.
The humanitarian response is “dangerously overstretched” in an area covering parts of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger, the UNHCR said on Friday.
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UNHCR spokesman Boris Cheshirkov told reporters in Geneva the “unrelenting violence” must stop.
He said the figure of two million internally displaced people had more than quadrupled since the start of 2019.
“The extreme vulnerability of the Sahel has been laid bare by the impact of forced displacement, caused by widespread and gruesome violence perpetrated by armed insurgent groups and criminal gangs,” he said.
He said the countries particularly needed help with schools and hospitals, many of which have shut because of the violence.
🚨A grim milestone: There are now over 2 million people displaced within the countries of Africa’s Sahel region.
— UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency (@Refugees) January 22, 2021
Armed groups affiliated to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS), once confined to lawless areas of northern Mali, have in recent years spread across the arid scrublands of the Sahel, into Burkina Faso and Niger, stoking ethnic tensions while jockeying for power and attacking security forces, which have also faced accusations of grave abuses.
The deteriorating security situation has created an enormous humanitarian crisis, destroying fragile agricultural economies and hobbling aid efforts.
Lacking ‘basic shelter’
More than half of the displaced in the region are in impoverished Burkina Faso, which has been under attack since 2015 when fighters swept in from neighbouring Mali.
The problems in Burkina Faso have intensified in recent weeks, said Cheshirkov.
More than 11,000 people, mostly women and children, fled attacks in and around the northern town of Koumbri earlier this month, he said.
They have reached safety and the UNHCR is erecting shelters and distributing aid.
“Despite the generosity of their hosts, many of the IDPs [internally displaced persons] lack basic shelter and are sleeping under open skies,” said Cheshirkov.
“States must act now to help Sahel countries address the root causes of this forced displacement, to boost strategic and sustainable development, and to strengthen institutions such as schools and hospitals, many of which have shut due to ongoing violence. The situation has worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
On top of the internally displaced, more than 850,000 people have fled from Mali and taken shelter in other countries.
Throughout the Sahel, UNHCR and other agencies are working to help hundreds of thousands of displaced people with shelter, aid and cash, the spokesman said.
“Our teams are also working to prevent and respond to instances of sexual violence, which have become widespread,” he added.