UNHCR and its response to the Sahel crisis in times of COVID-19

This group of refugee women in Niger is waiting for aid to be distributed by UNHCR staff This group of refugee women in Niger is waiting for aid to be distributed by UNHCR staff © UNHCR/H. Caux.


This article is a brief presentation of the report «Sahel crisis» by UNHCR

On June 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) issued a report entitled «Sahel Crisis – Responding to the urgent needs of refugees, internally displaced, returnees and others of concern» to present an analytic overview of the challenges the Sahel area is facing, its priority activities and its partnerships. In addition to the very fragile and insecure situation in many Sahelian regions, the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly exacerbated the crisis.

Initially, the report underlines how different factors, such as insecurity, climate change and the current pandemic, render the UNHCR operating environment very complicated. Indeed, the Sahel area faces indiscriminate attacks on a daily basis. They are mostly carried out by regular and irregular armed groups, including national armies, traffickers and criminal gangs, insurgent groups against civilians, but also against state institutions, in particular schools and health facilities. These factors, combined with other physical constraints, such as lack of road infrastructure, flooding, rough terrain, not only make humanitarian access hard and risky, but also force many people to displace.

UNHCR’s intervention is articulated in different sectors and its activities ensure inclusion and participation of the affected people. First, the UN agency recently provided shelter assistance to more than 25,000 families and aimed at distributing core relief items (CRIs) to 16,500 by the end of last month. Great attention has been given to responding to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), by implementing a comprehensive prevention and response strategy ensuring survivors’ psychosocial, medical, and legal support. Additionally, UNHCR closely worked with governments to support education for displaced children and youth, by training teachers on prevention measures, as well as by raising awareness on COVID-19. In the context of the current pandemic, the UN agency currently helps mitigate its impact on the people of concern by reinforcing national healthcare systems, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) structures and services in areas hosting displaced population.

The great commitment of UNHCR also stems from the risky environment of the Sahel region, being one of the most impacted regions in the world by climate change, with a projection of 3 degrees Celsius temperature increase by 2050. Thus, the UN agency considers the correlation between climate change and forced displacement and takes actions to develop community-based preparedness through mass information campaigns, promoting and supporting the use of clean energy by displaced and host communities in the meantime.

In Burkina Faso, 848,000 people have been displaced internally as of the end of April 2020 and a total of 25,000 Malian refugees currently live in the country. UNHCR is contributing to a comprehensive approach to reinforce the humanitarian, development, peacebuilding nexus. In particular, it will work with the government of Burkina Faso to relocate refugees to safer locations and to facilitate voluntary repatriation, while supporting border authorities to implement health measures to prevent and control COVID-19 contagion.

Furthermore, almost 251,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) were registered in Mali as of 1 May 2020. UNHCR is addressing reintegration needs of Malian refugees returning from Niger and Burkina Faso to escape indiscriminate attacks carried out in the host country, by expanding outreach and assistance to IDPs and returnees, as well as by reinforcing cross-border monitoring. It will also protect and assist over 10,000 refugees from Burkina Faso, and 17,000 from Niger currently in Mali.

In Niger, 26,000 new IDPs and 5,000 refugees have been recorded since January 2020. UNHCR’s action in response to the crisis in the most affected areas prioritizes shelter, CRIs and SGBV survivors’ assistance, education system improvements, and implementation of eco-friendly interventions to also address climate change.

The report also underlines the coordination and partnership efforts of UNHCR. More specifically, the UN agency interacts with national, regional and humanitarian organizations to address forced displacement. In this spirit, its main purposes are to create a linkage between the Bamako Process and the UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel, seeking support of other UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and key partners; to continue to open new offices to enhance operational coordination; to ensure coordinated alignment; to raise awareness of the Sahel region humanitarian needs.

To conclude, UNHCR appeals for $185.7 million to properly deliver protection and assistance to displaced populations within Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The sum could concretely enable a comprehensive response, including operational plans, additional needs and COVID-19 related activities. Financial support is urgently needed, in particular flexible funding, which is unearmarked or softly earmarked, is the most valuable support to ensure a better prioritisation response.



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Author: Barbara Caltabiano; Editor: Gianmarco Italia

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