Mali: UN gears up to assist possible return of thousands of displaced people

Displaced children in the Mali capital, Bamako, eat a welcome meal. Photo: UNHCR/H. Caux

29 January 2013 – The United Nations refugee agency today announced it is urgently preparing for a possible spontaneous return of thousands of conflict-displaced people in northern Mali, where ongoing insecurity is hampering some 380,000 from returning home.

“We aim to open new presences in Gao and other cities in the north as soon as it becomes feasible,” Adrian Edwards, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told reporters in Geneva.

UNHCR said that, based on interviews with internally displaced persons (IDPs) over the past few days, many people are hoping to return soon to Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, and neighbouring areas despite serious shortages of food, clean water and fuel.

Mr. Edwards said a UN security evaluation mission confirmed people returning to the central Mali town of Konna. Up to half of the town’s population of 10,000 was reported to have fled after rebel fighters overran the town on 10 January, prompting a French military intervention.

“The supply of food and other essential items has been seriously affected by the conflict and the closure of the border with Algeria, across which many goods used to be imported,” Mr. Edwards noted, adding that people fleeing the fighting moved closer to the closed border and some crossed it.

UNHRC is bringing into Mali relief items for 54,000 people, including sleeping mats, blankets, plastic tarpaulins, jerry-cans, mosquito nets and cooking utensils. A distribution of relief items is scheduled to start today in the town of Mopti, central Mali, where an estimated 40,000 people are internally displaced.

In all, some 380,000 people have fled northern Mali since the start of the conflict a year ago. This includes 230,000 who are internally displaced, and more than 150,000 who are living as refugees in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria.

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced today that it completed food distributions to 22,000 IDPs in Mopti and 12,000 IDPs in the capital city of Bamako. The distributions had been postponed following the outbreak of fighting and military intervention. Rapid analyses of the food security situation in other affected areas are underway.

WFP aims to reach around 530,000 people this year under an emergency operation that includes food and cash distributions, nutrition programmes for young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers, and emergency school feeding.

In addition, WFP is targeting 1.2 million people in rural areas in southern Mali with activities related to rural development, health and education to increase the food security of poor households.

Also today, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman represented the UN at the donor conference for Mali held at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where international donors pledged a reported $455 million.

“The challenge before us is enormous. We will need to coordinate delivery of humanitarian assistance and the voluntary return of internally displaced persons and refugees. We will also provide assistance to restore rule of law and security institutions, mine action, promotion of national dialogue, regional cooperation, security sector reform, human rights and the initial demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of former combatants,” he told the meeting.

“In this context, it is critical that political actors in Mali arrive, as soon as possible, at a unified and inclusive vision on the way forward for their country,” he stated. “Support from the international community will continue to be critical in helping the Malians to bridge differences and arrive at a national consensus.”

Mr. Feltman also announced the establishment of two trust funds through which Member States can provide contributions and financial support, one for the African-led International Support Mission in Mali, known as AFISMA, and the other to support the Malian defence forces.

“These trust funds will serve as important instruments for an effective and prompt mobilization of resources, in addition to bilateral support, to sustain our joint efforts in Mali,” he stated.

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