GENEVA (AFP) – The international community must help resolve the “forgotten crisis” in Mali or risk seeing the situation spiral out of control into neighbouring countries, the UN refugee agency chief said Friday.
“If a political solution is not found the chances of this developing beyond Mali are enormous,” said Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“On the other hand because this has been a forgotten crisis … we have the opportunity to witness that not only UNHCR but also World Food Programme and all the NGOs working with us are struggling with a dramatic lack of resources.”
Speaking to reporters in Geneva following a mission to Burkina Faso, Guterres said that the five-month old Mali conflict involving a rebellion by warring groups in the north of the country had forced 260,000 Malians to flee to neighbouring countries.
“(Given) the complexity of the Sahel situation with the number of movements and the actors that are intervening there is a very serious threat for the whole region, but in my opinion with global implications,” he said.
Refugees had been warmly welcomed by neighbouring countries Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, but the stable situation could not last given the “very serious food shortages” faced by all countries in the Sahel, he added.
Inside Mali, Guterres said almost 200,000 people were affected by the fighting. They were subject to human rights violations with almost no chance of receiving outside help.
US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, Anne Richard, who accompanied the High Commissoner to Burkina Faso, said “people were voting with their feet” in response to the implementation of strict sharia law by Islamic groups in northern Mali.
“What we saw was that people were voting with their feet … we met one young man who had fled because the imposition of sharia law and his concern that if you didn’t wear the right length of pants or if you were seen walking with your sister you could get into trouble”, she said.
The UNHCR budget for the region is $163 million (133 million euros) but the agency expects to receive just $60 million, said Guterres.