The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is stepping up response in Africa’s Sahel region where escalating violence has forced a rising number of people to flee their homes.
Agency chief Filippo Grandi this week concluded a visit to three affected countries—Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger—expressing alarm over the rapidly deteriorating situation.
“We always look at the Sahel, we think about terrorism…we think about what, in theory, threatens Europe”, said Mr. Grandi, speaking in Burkina Faso on Tuesday.
“But the real problem is here. The emergency is here. It is here that people are suffering, people are being killed, women are being raped, small children cannot go to school. It’s here that we must intervene before this crisis becomes unmanageable.”
The number of people forced to flee their homes in Burkina Faso rose 10-fold in 2019. That's more than half a million people displaced inside the country.
90% of the people @FilippoGrandi saw were women and children. pic.twitter.com/ph7ixDcUXw
— UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency (@Refugees) February 5, 2020
Armed groups terrorizing local populations
The Sahel region encompasses an area south of the Sahara Desert and spans across parts of 10 countries: from Senegal in the west all the way to Eritrea, in East Africa.
Violence there intensified after the 2011 revolution in Libya, and an uprising in Mali a year later. As a result, terrorist groups, organized criminal groups and others took advantage of weak governance and ethnic tensions to move across borders and terrorize local populations.
High Commissioner Grandi praised the three countries for continuing to welcome refugees.
They have taken in around 165,000 people from Mali, expressing solidarity even as they face their own internal security and humanitarian challenges.
Generous countries shielding one million displaced
Overall, countries in the central Sahel are sheltering more than one million refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).
“In the Sahel, some of the poorest countries in the world remain some of the most generous,” Mr. Grandi commented.
The High Commissioner concluded his visit in Burkina Faso, where armed extremists have carried out brutal attacks in the north and east.
There are now some 600,000 IDPs in the country; a 1,200 per cent increase over last year.
“In the Sahel, the response to the crisis must not be a security one alone. The protection of those forced to flee must remain at the core of our response to this displacement crisis”, said Mr. Grandi.
“This includes a better coordination between civilian and military authorities to ensure humanitarian access for immediate assistance. It is also critical to create the conditions for humanitarian and development actors to help with solutions to the affected population.”