Ten million children in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are in dire need of humanitarian assistance as a result of the spiralling conflict.
In a report published on Friday, the United Nations children’s agency said nearly four million more children are at risk in neighbouring countries as hostilities between armed groups and national security forces spill across borders.
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“Children are increasingly caught up in the armed conflict as victims of intensifying military clashes, or targeted by non-state armed groups,” said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF regional director for Western and Central Africa.
“The year 2022 was particularly violent for children in the central Sahel. All parties to the conflict need to urgently stop attacks both on children and their schools, health centres, and homes.”
The central Sahel has been riddled with instability since ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda-affiliated armed groups started to jockey for power.
The violence, which first took root in Mali in the wake of a 2012 uprising in the country’s north, has since spread throughout the Sahel and reached West African countries. Attacks have also inflamed communal tensions driven in part by intense climate change.
‘Severe food insecurity’
Armed groups fighting for supremacy and control of resources have left more than 18.6 million people in the region experiencing “severe food insecurity” – an increase of 5.6 million since the end of June 2022.
Burkina Faso, Niger, and Nigeria are the hardest hit, according to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s report issued in January. About 6.3 million people are displaced across the Sahel, an increase of 300,000 since June.
UNICEF’s report highlighted the number of children at risk had doubled since 2020. In Burkina Faso, three times more children were killed in the first nine months of 2022 compared with the same period in 2021, according to UN data.
“Most of the children died from gunshot wounds during attacks on their villages, or as a result of improvised explosive devices or explosive remnants of war,” said the report.
The report underlined how armed groups operating across Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger blockade towns and villages, sabotage water networks, oppose state-administered education, burn and loot schools, and threaten, abduct or kill teachers.
“Over 20,000 people in the border area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger will be in ‘catastrophe’-level food insecurity by June 2023,” said the report. “Over 8,300 schools have shut down across the three countries because they were directly targeted.”
Violence in the central Sahel has spilled over into the northern border regions of Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo – an area already suffering from scarce infrastructure and resources.
Calling for an “urgent” and “stronger” humanitarian response, Poirier said the crisis in the central Sahel and neighbouring countries also needed long-term flexible investment in resilient social services that will help draw a better future for children.