UNHCR: Food shortages await thousands fleeing Mali conflict

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Almost 7,500 refugees have fled into neighbouring countries since French and Malian forces launched a counter-offensive against Islamic militants almost two weeks ago and the exodus is continuing.

In Mauritania, 4,208 Malian refugees have arrived since the latest fighting began on January 11. After being registered at the Fassala transit centre, they are being transported further inland to the Mbera refugee camp, which was already hosting some 55,000 people from earlier displacements.

In Niger there are now 1,300 new refugees, mainly from the Menaka and Anderamboukane areas. During the same period, Burkina Faso has received 1,829 new refugees. These are mainly ethnic Tuaregs and Songhai from the regions of Gossi, Timbuktu, Gao and Bambara Maoude.

“To help receive people we have erected two hangars in Inabao, at the border with Mali, which is currently the main entry point for new refugees. Our partner, Plan Burkina, has also rehabilitated a water pump and has constructed emergency latrines,” a UNHCR spokesman, Adrian Edwards, said. “In part, this is aimed too at easing any possible tensions with the local population,” he added.

New arrivals continue to tell UNHCR that they left their homes because of French air strikes and fighting, as well as fears over the application of Islamic law, or Sharia. They also speak of increasing shortages of food and fuel, with traditional markets unable to operate. A lack of cereal is pushing breeders to either kill some of their animals as they have nothing else to eat, or to try to sell them.

Some refugees are travelling by private car or by truck, while others have arrived from Mali on foot or by donkey. Many newly arrived refugees are expecting additional members of their families to join them in the next days from Mali.

UNHCR and partners continue to assist those refugees who are in camps in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania by providing clean water, sanitation and hygiene structures, food, adequate shelter, health care and education.

In Burkina Faso, vehicles are going back and forth at the border to collect those who are unable to walk. “We are also continuing to relocate refugees from the border to safer sites inland,” spokesman Edwards noted.

On Saturday, a convoy with 568 refugees left the Ferrerio and Gandafabou refugee sites, in Burkina Faso’s northern Sahel region to be relocated to Goudebou camp near the town of Dori. Ferrerio will now only be used as a transit centre for the new arrivals before they are transported to Goudebou. In total, Burkina Faso is hosting 38,776 Malian refugees.

Including those displaced this month, almost 150,000 Malians have found refuge in neighbouring countries since the Mali crisis started in January 2012. Inside Mali, 229,000 people are displaced – mainly from the Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao areas.

For the internally displaced as well as for refugees, the immediate needs are for water, food, shelter and medical care. Living conditions are particularly precarious for the internally displaced and UNHCR is supporting income-generation activities in the Mali capital of Bamako for IDPs.

But humanitarian access to other areas of Mali is severely restricted by the security situation. Abdullah, 41, was staying in a small room at his father’s house in the capital after fleeing with his family from the southern town of Diabaly, which was captured by the Islamists on January 14 and briefly held.

Abdullah worked as a driver for a private company in Diabaly and told UNHCR he was picking up his boss at his home on January 14 “when we were attacked by six men. They were threatening us with their guns and Kalashnikovs and asked for the car keys before taking away the vehicle.” He returned home and stayed there with his family as the sounds of gunfire and explosions echoed around the town.

He decided to leave the next morning on foot with his wife and four children, heading south towards the capital. “We joined many other people who were leaving Diabaly. I was carrying my younger son on my shoulders. We went straight to Bamako,” Abdullah said.

In their small temporary home, his wife and four children sleep on the bed, while Abdullah bunks down on the floor. “It is normally a room used for storage,” he said, adding: “I just want to return to Diabaly and go back to work so that I can take care of my family.”

By Hélène Caux in Bamako, Mali

UNHCR

 

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Will #Mali’s new government herald arms or armies?

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In less time than it takes for an apartment pineapple to ripen, a new government of national unity has been formed in Mali in the latest effort to restore stability after the military coup in March. It follows 5 long months of political tug-of-war between the ready-meal interim government and the frozen-dinner coup leadership headed by Captain Sanogo. The Captain was persuaded to release his grip a little, after his palms were oiled with a palatial home and “former head of state” status – including a generous allowance. The cabinet has 31 ministers, including five from Sanogo’s camp. The head of the interim government, Cheick Modibo Diarra, stays on as prime minister. For now.

Early-stage pre-coup pineapple during US training

During this incubation period, interim President Dioncounda Traore was attacked, and spent several weeks recovering in Paris. No doubt he spent more of that time in the briefing room of  Boulevard Mortier  than in recovery. Shortly after Dioncounda returned to Mali, one of the former President’s elite Red Beret guards, Staff Sergeant Amadou Traore, was murdered in his barracks. That signal seems to have been received loud and clear; no further attacks on the interim president have been reported yet.

Last month, the regional bloc ECOWAS threatened to expel Mali unless a unity government was installed, according to the BBC. Yesterday, there were news reports of ECOWAS and Algeria [ar] barring military shipments to Mali. Meanwhile, Major General Suleiman Mahmoud al-Obeidi, Libya’s former Deputy Director of Military Intelligence and Chairman of the Republican Guard in Benghazi, reveals that, when there was a weapons amnesty and surrendering of arms in Libya last year, his unit alone boycotted the deal and instead their weapons passed to mercenaries from Egypt, for onward transfer to AQIM in Algeria and Mali. Doubly painful, as it was the ousted former president Touré, aka “ATT”, who said in February that they needed more military hardware to respond to the MNLA’s attacks, widely reported to be using massive fire-power brought back from Libya.

Weapons in 30 Days or Your Next Government Half Price

We need to wait to see if the formation of a new unity government defrosts the supply of arms, and whether they’ll be delivered by shipment or in person. Just last weekend, Al Jazeera Arabic reported a training exercise in Libya (irony alert) of 2,000 troops including 800 special forces from Great Britain, France, Spain and Italy, in preparation for an incursion into Malian territory. The training programme lasted from February to June. Here’s the video:

There are many competing theories about what is going on in Mali. One school of thought insists that the plan is, and always has been, to get the boots of foreign troops on the ground. However, just as with the reports of armed rebels severing someone’s hand as a punishment for stealing (and the victim later dying), and of their threat-or-promise to repeat the exercise with hundreds more after the Eid holiday, or even of the beheading* that UNHCR’s spokesperson Melissa Fleming claimed to have happened, there’s no way of knowing if the scenario portrayed in this video sheds light on the actual situation.

How can we figure Mali out? To butcher the old standard, “follow the ransom money” and we find food for thought. For example, fresh claims of Swiss support for the rebels appeared last week. This was denied by the MNLA as a rumour created by a Swiss journalist and promoted to a fact by a website in Mauritania, where the media has carved a niche for exclusive revelations about Mali.

I was anticipating more mention of Switzerland, after a Swiss woman was apparently taken hostage in Timbuctu by a private militia who planned to trade her to AQIM. The lady was reportedly “rescued” by Ansar Dine and released for an alleged 1 million Euro, in a deal where they demanded to liaise directly with the Swiss officials, rejecting the offer of a human rights NGO to mediate.  That event was soon followed by a spectacular betrayal of MNLA by Ansar Dine, who hijacked the uprising and forced the secular separatists into a retreat from which they have yet to emerge. Speculation about how the more radical supporters of religion achieved this feat includes the investment of ransom capital to buy supporters. There have been other kidnappings: three Westerners abducted nearly nine months ago by AQIM in Mali, seen today urging their governments to help free them in an Al-Jazeera television exclusive video, and the seven Algerian diplomatic staff taken from the embassy in Gao, three of whom were returned last month, shortly after the release of one Italian and two Spanish hostages. This last exchange was said to be accompanied by a few more million Euro and the release of two more prisoners – one assumed by some to be connected to the POLISARIO – who were being held in Mauritania for their part in the kidnapping of the three Europeans.

Within days Mauritania benefited from a capitulation by the EU (Note: the EU Africa team is led by a Spaniard) finally agreeing to their exorbitant new terms for renewing the fishing agreement, and an agreement from Spain to salvage the small aircraft “donated” to Mauritania in June last year to help in the fight against illegal immigrants, and which had remained, unairworthy and stranded on the tarmac, more or less the whole time.

This brings me to another stranded plane – the famous “Air Cocaine” Boeing jet from South America which landed/crashed just north of Gao in a village called Tarkint at the end of October 2009, and was reportedly torched by the smugglers after their cargo of drugs had been retrieved. The local mayor was known as an intermediary with AQIM for the release of kidnap victims.

The char grilled remains of “Air Cocaine” /JON SISTIAGA

“Air Cocaine” was registered in Saudi Arabia,  rented in Venezuela, and had made previous trips from Colombia  under a licence issued by Guinea Bissau, but which had expired at some point. The drug trafficking was said to be linked to AQIM, and this flight’s cargo could have been worth anything between 150 and 300 million Euro. Some of these details only became apparent much later, after WikiLeaks’ cables release, as the original investigation was handled by the intelligence services and shrouded in secrecy.  There were dozens of arrests, but few detentions or convictions in connection with this scandal. Then last week, we learned that the last two suspects, one French, one Spanish, had been released in Mali. The drug smuggling case against the Spaniard was thrown out.  This chap is a real charmer: a former Madrid policeman, until he was busted for trafficking, drugs, explosives, weapons, and counterfeit identity documents. He also had a suspended sentence in Mali connected to the gruesome murder [es] of a Colombian with a forged Ukrainian passport. He apparently plans to stay in Mali. One would hope he is short of alternatives but why leave Mali, when half the world is ready to come to you?

Additionally, a wealthy businessman from Tilemsi in the Gao region – Mohamed Ould Awaynat – who had been sentenced to one year in prison for his part in the trafficking scandal, was reportedly released in January this year, in an alleged deal with the Malian government. In exchange for his freedom, he is said to have paid to recruit and train northern fighters to boost the ranks of the army against the MNLA. They do say money makes the world go around. If you add massive cash flows from drug trafficking it begins to spin put of control. That is certainly what appears the be the case in Mali.

All these rebel groups in Mali seem like just so many finger puppets. But to which “invisible hand” do the fingers belong?

If you enjoy bizarre details – and you’ve got this far, so I should take that as given – then you might be further entertained by the fact that the article in the previous link, by Andy Morgan in Think Africa Press, was posted on FaceBook in a now lifeless MNLA group, requiring 14 comments to post in its entirety. The comment poster uses the name Ghazi Agizul and, although his bio says he’s a proud Amazigh from Tunisia, I found it odd that “Ghazi” used a translation tool to render the English original into French, which should be a natural language for him. That he didn’t post a link to Google Translate or use a Note instead of 14+ comments is not mysterious, only irritating. If it transpired that Andy Morgan and Ghazi Agizul were one and the same person, that would be interesting. It would also raise many general questions about the clandestine online and offline activities of certain people who present themselves publicly as working in the media, but that is a whole other story. Going back to the article itself, it’s too lengthy to analyse in depth but there are some factual errors, which always has the effect of eroding credibility. For example,  Mr Morgan claims to have spent years in northern Mali, yet placed Kati near Timbuktu. I wouldn’t blame him if the article was simply too long for him to cope with when it got to proof-reading.

Also in the WikiLeaked cable, we learn of another incident involving a plane:  US military making a “hard landing” 65 miles from Bamako, and receiving assistance. ATT was happy to help because “he knew the United States was coming to help Mali”. Sadly, nothing could be done to help the three US military and their three civilian companions who died in a vehicle accident in April this year. Will the US be coming to help again; will they feel they no longer need an invite?

Short of the IAEA declaring that there are nuclear weapons hidden in the barren wastelands of northern Mali, I wonder how many more UN agencies or NGOs can enter the fray, wringing their collective hands over the many unverified domestic dramas that they claim are engulfing this most coveted of would-be war zones, declaring every incident a war crime, and clamouring at the gates to be allowed in to rescue Mali from itself and the horrors of Sharia law’s unjust desserts.

As ATT noted in February, with a prescience we have yet to fully to appreciate: “There are many rumors. If we are not careful, we’ll fall into the hands of those who are attacking Mali and who want to oppose the government.”

*I assume Ms Fleming meant to say “stoning” – but there is no solid evidence of that having happened, either. If she did witness a beheading, I’d have liked her to verify in reply to my question, especially since her bio includes the phrase “Tweets highlight the stories of human suffering and resilience I witness every day.” [my emphasis].

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“I am not a criminal” – a refugee’s story

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Sayed Farzin Amirkalali after three weeks on hunger strike

Cyprus authorities have kept a man in detention in unsuitable conditions without sunlight, fresh air or outdoor facilities for 256 days, in essence, because he failed to acquire a ‘pink slip’ in his last year of study at a Nicosia college in 1997.

Sayed Farzin Amirkalali, 47, is a computer engineer from Iran. He has spent the last eight and a half months locked up in Lakatameia police station, separated from his wife and ten-year-old son.

He is not a criminal.

In fact, he is a scientist, responsible for designing the Iranian version of the “voice command wheelchair” to help provide mobility to paralysed victims of the Iran-Iraq war. He is an expert on robotics and wants to develop his research so that a wheelchair can be instructed to move not just by voice alone, but using brain signals.

For the last three weeks, he has been on hunger strike in a Lakatameia holding cell, accepting only tea and water. Last Friday, police took him for a third time to hospital for treatment. Their patience with Amirkalali appears to be thinning.

This time, they refused him a phone call to inform his family. Instead, an inmate at the detention centre alerted his wife, Behnoosh, and Greek Cypriot friend, Nikolas Papaioannou, a classmate from his days at Intercollege in the 1990s.

He was examined by a doctor and taken for X-rays but the entire discussion between the medical staff and police was in Greek. The patient remained unaware of his condition.

The photos of Amirkalali after his hospital visit, acquired by the Sunday Mail, reveal a shattered, emaciated man who insists on continuing his hunger strike until those who usurped his freedom explain themselves, or better still, until he can eat again with his wife and child at the same table.

“He’s a wreck, physically and psychologically,” said Papaioannou, who saw him briefly at the hospital.

“They say he illegally stayed in the country in 1997 after his visa expired. That is no reason to keep someone locked up for eight and a half months. He has a clean criminal record both here and in Iran. This is discrimination and a violation of his human rights,” said Papaioannou.

“I’ve known him since 1993. We went to college together. This man is a scientist, he can deal with robots, everything. The state could have used this man’s knowledge. If they don’t want him, then let him go,” he said.

 

Nicosia Central Prison which houses Block 10 detention centre

Speaking to the Sunday Mail during brief access to a mobile phone, Amirkalali said: “Two years ago, my neighbours discovered I had converted to Christianity [religious conversion away from Islam is illegal in Iran]. I left Iran for Cyprus with my family before they could arrest me.

“On the day I made my asylum application on November 23, 2011, they came and arrested me in front of my wife and son. They took me to Lakatameia and told me it would only be for a few days. There is no TV, no sunlight, no open space to exercise. A day is a day here,” he added.

The story of Amirkalali is a complicated, sad one, highlighting the plight of those who leave their homes for a better, safer future and end up in Cyprus, in a system that has few qualms condemning people to indefinite detention.

Last month, Ombudswoman Eliza Savvidou warned of more unrest if immigrants continue to be held in detention – often in Lakatameia or Block 10 of Nicosia Central Prison – in unsuitable locations for lengthy periods while awaiting deportation, following a fire started in Block 10.

Many end up in a police cell not because they have committed a criminal offence, but based on an administrative decision to hold them while awaiting deportation.

In a 2011 report, she highlighted that Lakatameia holding cells are “unsuitable for detention”. Detainees stay the whole time in the wing or cell without contact with the outside world, natural light or clean air. In the long term, this has clear and serious consequences on their physical and mental health, she said.

She blasted the authorities’ for choosing “as a rule” to almost always opt for detention: the most “onerous and coercive measure” for anyone set for deportation.

Detention should be a last resort and should not exceed six months except in “exceptional cases” and only where efforts to deport that person continue, said Savvidou.

On June 12, 2012, Amirkalali’s ten-year-old son sent a handwritten letter to the ministry, saying: “My father is in Lakatameia police station for 6 months and 2 weeks. It’s 2 weeks that im [sic] waiting for my father to be released. I have missed my father and I need him. Please release my father.”

Under Cypriot law, if there is no reasonable prospect of deportation, the person in question must be immediately released.

So, on what grounds is Amirkalali being detained for deportation?

The ombudswoman’s office sent two letters to the Interior Ministry asking this very question, as has Amirkalali. Demetris Demetriou, a legal adviser for Future Worlds Centre (funded by UNHCR in Cyprus) has sent one letter. To date, none have received a reply.

The Sunday Mail spoke to the Interior Ministry’s Permanent Secretary Andreas Assiotis who said Amirkalali spent 11 months illegally in Cyprus in 1997 after which, he was put on the stop list.

Despite the fact he returned to Cyprus with a legitimate visa four times since 1997, when Amirkalali applied for asylum last November, immigration “correctly arrested” him, said Assiotis.

“These are the facts, he was on the stop list. He is illegal,” he said.

When pressed to elaborate, the ministry official questioned why the 47-year-old delayed applying for asylum after arriving in Cyprus last summer, hinting at possible abuse of the asylum system.

We asked Amirkalali the same question.

 

Sayed Farzin Amirkalali before his arrest

“In 1990, I came to Cyprus as a student to study Computer Engineering at Intercollege. Because my English was poor, it took me a longer time to finish my studies. In1996, I asked for an extension of my visa for one more year to finish my studies but immigration would not issue me a pink slip,” he said.

According to Amirkalali, the authorities “agreed” with the college to let him stay another year without a pink slip to finish his degree. During that year, he was never contacted or informed by immigration that he was “illegal”.

“I was so naïve to trust and believe their words that everything was settled,” he said.

On July 16, 1997, his birthday, Amirkalali left Cyprus of his own free will with a Bachelor’s degree in hand.

Three years later and newly married, the Iranian graduate chose Cyprus for his honeymoon.

In 2010, he brought his wife and son for a three-week holiday to visit close Cypriot friends made during his studies.

“Since 1997, I came to Cyprus four times and every time I got a visa and was legally here and no one said anything about my name being on the stop list. I had no problem on arrivals or departures,” he said.

Two years ago, Amirkalali converted to Christianity. When his neighbours found out, he said he feared for the safety of his family.

“Apostasy is punishable by death. They (Iranian authorities) will arrest you and torture you to give names of other Christians and eventually sentence you to death.”

According to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, under Iran’s strict interpretation of Islam, anyone converting to another religion could face the death penalty or at least life imprisonment.

Amirkalali decided to move his family to Canada. Given his financial security and innovative research skills, he was confident in securing a ‘professional migrant’ visa.

“I couldn’t wait three to five years to apply to Canada from Iran. Every minute was a risk. I told my wife I have friends in Cyprus, it is a very hospitable country, they are Christians. Let’s go there and from there to Canada,” he said, considering that the visa application in Cyprus would take much less time, six months to a year.

This is the point where the Cypriot authorities appear to reach a mental block.

Sometimes, people may leave a country in fear but still wish to be masters of their own destiny, wanting to start new lives with their heads held high. He chose to return to higher education in Cyprus.

“The one year student visa would provide me with two things: a Masters degree and enough time to apply for an immigrant visa to Canada,” Amirkalali said.

Unfortunately for him, the college he applied to could offer cheap fees, but no visa.

Unable to wait, he brought his family to Cyprus on a tourist visa. Reminded by the college that one can only acquire a student visa from the country of origin, he returned to Iran alone in secret, avoiding his hometown. Further delays compelled him to return to Cyprus on a business visa in the hope of trading in second-hand computers until the college could sort out his student visa. It couldn’t. On the day his business visa expired, Amirkalali ran out of options and applied for asylum.

He was detained immediately. It’s been eight and a half months. His asylum was rejected. He has appealed. During his time in detention, the 47-year-old has been unable to apply for a Canadian visa.

“I am not a criminal. If I had something to hide I would never have been up front from the beginning about my story,” he said.

“I had everything in Iran: a house, a job, friends, but I had to abandon them to save my family.”

Now, he awaits the decision of the Refugee Reviewing Authority, wondering “why me and my family are considered so unwanted or so dangerous for your country”.

According to Demetriou, his case is “tragic” and his detention “unlawful”.

This is disputed by Assiotis who appears to favour the letter of the law over its spirit.

Meanwhile, the ombudswoman clearly doubts whether the ministry’s policy on detention and deportation even falls within the letter of the law.

As Demetriou noted, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in two cases that the deportation of an Iranian Christian convert back to Iran would put his life at serious risk, amounting to a violation of Article 3 of the European Human Rights Convention.

During Cyprus’ EU presidency, as the Interior Ministry attempts to conclude negotiations on a Common European Asylum System by the end of the year, Amirkalali’s fate and that of his family remain in the balance, while the question arises, how many more cases like this are hiding in the artificially lit cells of Cyprus’ detention centres?

 

Cyprus Mail

Denied! Yet These Refugees Exist

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At this moment, there are thousands of Mauritanian refugees waiting to return to their country. These innocents appear to have been marginalised because their existence is inconvenient for the political agenda of the illegitimate Mauritanian regime, which clings to power under the protection of president Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz, with the full support of major international governments and agencies.

Marginalised in Mali

In October 2011, a group of 15 Mauritanian NGOs, called for a tripartite agreement between the governments of Mauritania and Mali and the UNHCR for the repatriation of Mauritanian refugees in Mali. Their demand was provoked by the Interior Minister Mohamed Ould Boilil, who had denied the existence of this group a few days previously in the National Assembly. It is to be expected that the UNHCR census in Mali might have been perturbed by recent instability, but in its 2012 Operations Report for North Africa, UNHCR states that there are more than 12,000 Mauritanian refugees registered in Mali, of whom some 9,000 have expressed the wish to return. The report adds that voluntary repatriation from Mali would be considered once repatriation from Senegal was completed. Since then: nothing.

Aziz has surrounded himself with tribal and family loyalists. One such is Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, who is currently stirring the racial division pot for his cousin the president with some media spin. First, he allegedly denied that black Africans who were expelled were citizens, later claimed to have been misquoted (on the radio!) and now he’s trying to whitewash his involvement in the historic events. Anti-slavery and anti-racist movements are predictably outraged. Aziz and his cousin know exactly what buttons to press to ensure the disharmony that was sown last year prevents any united opposition movement gaining momentum.

Frustrated in Senegal

19 June 2012 – Mauritanian refugees in Senegal [photo: Ferloo.com]

On the eve of World Refugees Day 2012 in Senegal, Mauritanian refugees staged a peaceful marchto draw attention to their situation, which they say is being neglected by the National Commission for Refugee Protection. On the sidelines of the mass protest, a group of refugees began an indefinite hunger strike outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office.

Sy Abdourahmane, spokesman for over 20,000 Mauritanian refugees in Senegal, told reporters that people have reached the end of their patience, the situation is too much to bear any longer, and the hunger strike is their last resort. He explained that the group face legal and social problems and are unable to establish their national identity.

In January 2012, a hundred former Mauritanian refugees, repatriated from Senegal, staged a protest outside the National Assembly, demanding that their agricultural land, confiscated after their expulsion in 1989, be returned to them.

In March, the UNHCR and Mauritanian authorities declared that the voluntary repatriation process for Mauritanian refugees was complete, and held a ceremony in Rosso to mark the occasion. This was followed by a flying visit on Monday 26 March by UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres to Mbere camp in the remote eastern basin.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNJuadoZT-w]

Reports at the time gave the impression that everyone who wished to return to Mauritania was now back in their homeland and being cared for, while all others had chosen to remain in Senegal and were being given financial assistance and plots of land. If the protests and other reports of returnees citizens in Mauritania being stuck in limbo are any indication, the repatriation process remains woefully incomplete.

Not all Nomads

CityMag June 2012

Stories of Malian refugees flooding into isolated border camps like Fassala and Mbere get much publicity and attention. Yet in the capital of Mauritania, Nouakchott, an estimated 3,000 unregistered Malian refugees exist in difficult circumstances, according to the June 2012 edition of independent magazine CityMag. This situation began with Tuareg who fled when civil unrest erupted in Mali at the end of January, making their escape by car. Members of the first groups to arrive, crossing via Nioro and Ayoun, told cridem reporters in February that they fled in fear of their lives after attacks against “light skinned” people in Bamako. Many left everything behind, their flight fuelled by memories of previous periods of brutal unrest as much as by current events.

They also explained how, on presenting themselves at the Nouakchott office, they were told UNHCR was not aware of any “urban refugees” and the new arrivals must ask the host country to transport them to the border camps. The alternative is to remain unregistered – a non-status equivalent to being classed as vagrants or even illegal immigrants. Even so, many chose this option rather than surrender to the terrible conditions of the isolated and overcrowded camps, where 1500 – 2000 were reportedly arriving almost daily in May. What is the meaning of such banality? That Tuareg can’t be urbanised, or that refugees are not welcome in Mauritania unless they are hidden away in the furthest recesses of the desert? Is the price of “refuge” to be half-starved and subject to extremes of every condition, ready to be photographed at their worst by the swarm of “freelance” photographers and reporters being flown in from far afield? On that point, I feel obliged to point out that there is no shortage of  highly skilled and capable freelance photographers and journalists available for work in Mauritania.

These “urban Tuareg” in Nouakchott do not receive any support or recognition from Mauritanian authorities or international aid agencies. They live on their wits and whatever the local community can provide, perhaps supplemented by donations from compatriots in town for recent MNLA discussions. Mauritania’s famed culture of offering hospitality to visitors goes far beyond the polite offer of a cup of mint tea: one might almost call it a national obsession.  True to tradition, the community tries to rally round, but there are signs that even their best efforts are falling short. Times are hard in Mauritania, with spiralling food and fuel prices, high unemployment, and low wages pushing more people towards the poverty trap. A reporter for Latest Network News, who went to investigate current conditions on 17 June, told how he found some of the Tuareg reduced to begging on the street. He said they live in fear of being arrested by the police, and were too scared to talk on camera or allow their photograph to be taken.

An Invisible Population

The Tuareg are not the only refugee community in Nouakchott; for example, there is a group of Ivorians who have been campaigning for assistance for months. A cursory search will reveal similar stories worldwide – Iranian refugees trapped in Turkey, Burmese marooned in Thailand, Africans stuck on the Italian island of Lampedusa, and thousands of stateless in Kuwait and other gulf states. Al Jazeera reports more than 120,000 Syrians fleeing the violence in their homeland have taken refuge in Jordan, according to the Amman government. The United Nations has registered 20,000 of them. International aid agencies seem ill-equipped to cater for these “niche” groups, yet together they represent the population of a small country.

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Note: Following ethnic clashes in late April 1989, hundreds of victims on both sides of the Senegal River and tens of thousands of Mauritanians were forced to leave their country and take refuge in neighbouring states. All countries of North Africa have ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, with the exception of Libya, which is, however, party to the Organisation of African Unity’s 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.

Thousands still flee #Somalia every month

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 A year after troubled Somalia was ravaged by the worst drought in decades, no end seems in sight to more than two decades of suffering and Somalis continue to flee their country to escape conflict, human rights abuses and adverse weather conditions.

In the first four months of this year, some 20,000 Somalis sought refuge in neighbouring Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen. Although the levels are lower, they are significant. On average 40,000 Somalis fled their homeland each month between June and September of 2011.

In May, the Dollo Ado camps in eastern Ethiopia, which were already hosting more than 150,000 refugees, saw a significant increase in new arrivals, from less than 980 in the first half of May to more than 2,000 in the second half.

The newcomers say they are fleeing increased physical insecurity and dwindling food resources. Specifically, they cite fear of being caught in military operations, forced recruitment, poor rains and crop destruction by caterpillars as reasons for leaving Somalia. “We are working with the Ethiopian authorities to identify a site for a sixth camp in this already crowded and environmentally fragile area,” Andrej Mahecic, a UNHCR spokesman, said in Geneva.

Meanwhile, at Dadaab in north-east Kenya, more than 460,000 refugees continue to live in a precarious security environment. The threat of improvised explosive devices, shootings, kidnapping and banditry remains high. Deliveries of assistance and activities in the camps are continuing regardless.

Mahecic explained that the priority and toughest challenge for UNHCR and its partners throughout the past year has been to reduce the unprecedented mortality and malnutrition rates among Somali arrivals.

“Despite life-saving medical care and therapeutic feeding programmes in the Dadaab and Dollo Ado refugee camps, many of the newly arriving children have been beyond help – dying within hours or days of arrival. At the peak of the influx last summer, the estimated death toll was as high as 17 deaths per 10,000 people every day,” he noted.

At the onset of last year’s crisis, UNHCR and its partners set up critical nutrition programmes in reception and transit centres and in the camps. “Combined with mass vaccinations and other public health measures, these massive efforts saved lives over the past 12 months,” Mahecic said. “Mortality and malnutrition rates began to drop from record highs in September last year, but it took another six months before they fell below the levels usually seen in an emergency – less than one per 10,000 per day,” he added.

Today, Ethiopia’s Dollo Ado camps are reporting an average crude mortality rate of 0.8 per 1,000 per month and an under-five mortality rate of 2.2 per 1,000 per month. In Kenya’s Dadaab refugee complex the crude mortality rate is 0.2 per 1,000 per month, and 0.6 per 1,000 per month for children under five years of age.

“Another vital achievement has been the reduction in the high malnutrition rates, unseen in decades,” Mahecic said. Malnutrition was especially alarming among refugee children – in June and July last year, more than half of Somali children arriving in Ethiopia were acutely malnourished. That rate was somewhat lower among those arriving in Kenya, but equally disturbing – between 30 and 40 per cent.

Mahecic said the results of the most recent mass screenings show a sharp reduction of malnutrition among under fives in Dadaab (seven per cent). In Dollo Ado, the malnutrition levels among children also stabilized with all camps showing a positive trend. In the older Melkadida and Bokolomayo camps, acute malnutrition rates have fallen to 15 per cent. UNHCR is currently preparing a follow-up survey in the newer Kobe and Hilaweyn camps and expects to see significantly reduced levels of general acute malnutrition.

Massive water, sanitation and hygiene programmes went hand-in-hand with these efforts and were integral to the vast improvements in the health conditions of the Somali refugee population.

Meanwhile, neighbouring countries have been bearing the brunt of the Somali displacement and they continue to need international support. Some 300,000 people fled Somalia last year alone. Today, more than 980,000 Somalis live as refugees in Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen and Djibouti.

UNHCR