Some 70,000 refugees from Mali are living in difficult conditions in the middle of the Mauritanian desert, with ethnic tensions in northern Mali quashing any hopes of a swift return home. A report released today by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) entitled “Stranded in the desert” calls on aid for organisations urgently to renew efforts to provide for the refugees’ basic needs.

Based on testimonies collected from over 100 refugees in Mbera refugee camp in Mauritania, the report examines the reasons for the refugees’ flight and reveals the underlying complexity of the crisis in neighbouring Mali. While the crisis could last for months or even years, the refugees face a future of isolation in the middle of the desert, totally dependent on outside assistance and humanitarian aid.

“More than 100,000 people from northern Mali are currently displaced within their country or have escaped abroad as refugees,” says Henry GRAY, emergency coordinator for MSF. “Most of the refugees are from the Touareg and Arab communities. They fled pre-emptively, often for fear of violence due to their presumed links with Islamist or separatist groups. Their home in northern Mali is still in the grip of fear and mistrust.”

MSF has been working in Mauritania since the arrival of the first refugees, in early 2012, and has frequently warned about the alarming effects on the refugees’ health of the appalling living conditions in Mbera camp. In November 2012 MSF conducted a nutritional and retrospective mortality survey that revealed a critical nutrition situation and mortality rates above the emergency threshold for children under two years old.

The medical situation has further worsened following an influx of 15,000 new refugees in the aftermath of the January 2013 joint French and Malian military intervention . The number of consultations in MSF’s clinics in the Mbera camp has increased from 1,500 to 2,500 per week. The number of children suffering from severe malnutrition has more than doubled, from 42 to 106 severely malnourished children under treatment, of which 85 percent of whom arrived in the camp between January and February; this despite the nutritional status of the new refugees being generally good when assessed on arrival in the camp.

“These statistics show that the refugees have grown weaker whilst in the camp, the very place where they should have been receiving assistance, including correctly formulated food rations, from aid organisations,” says Gray. “There has clearly been  a lack of preparation for this new influx of refugees. The situation which has improved in recent weeks but it is still extremely precarious and aid organisations need to maintain their humanitarian response for as long as necessary : shelter, clean water, latrines, hygiene and food must all reach and be sustained at the minimum humanitarian standards.”

MSF runs medical and humanitarian programmes in the Malian regions of Mopti, Gao Sikasso, and Timbuktu, as well as for Malian refugees in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. In Mauritania, MSF supports four primary health care centres in the Mbera camp and at the Fassala border crossing post, and runs an operating theatre in the town of Bassikounou. Since starting to work in Mauritania in February 2012, MSF teams  have provided 85,000 consultations, assisted 200 deliveries and treated nearly 1,000 children suffering from severe malnutrition.




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