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Thousands of Malians flee to new towns, creating humanitarian crisis

Malians hang on the back of a packed minibus as they drive to Marakala, central Mali, some 240kms (140 miles) from Bamako on Jan. 22, 2013. Thousands of Malians are fleeing their towns, which aid workers say is creating a humanitarian crisis.

Jerome Delay/AP

Aid workers in Mali say they are still coming to grips with an expanding humanitarian crisis, as people displaced by the intensified fighting of the past two weeks arrive in new towns looking for shelter and food.

After severe food shortage and a takeover of the north by Islamist extremists, there is now open war. The flow of thousands of displaced people is not expected to slow.

"We don't necessarily expect things to get better before they get worse," Jane Iredale, a Winnipeg native who is CARE International's assistant country director in Mali, said in a telephone interview from Bamako.

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Aid groups estimate about 9,000 people have been displaced by the conflict in southern Mali since France launched a military intervention Jan. 10, in addition to about 7,000 who have streamed across borders to burgeoning refugee camps in neighbouring countries of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

The numbers of displaced are a very rough estimate by organizations still trying to assess the crisis, with some forecasting the total will reach into the hundreds of thousands.

The latest conflict comes on top of severe food shortages and conflict last year that has seen 229,000 people displaced inside Mali and another 147,000 fleeing to neighbouring countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The intensified conflict has thousands of Malians newly on the move, as many as 80 per cent of them women and children, Ms. Iredale said. "There's even some cases of unaccompanied children arriving in the city, in different areas, in Mopti and Ségou."

It has led to a scramble for aid organizations such as CARE to assess the scope of the crisis while they distribute food and basic items. "It's water-purification tablets, soap, buckets, cooking utensils, blankets. Sometimes there's plastic sheeting for temporary shelter," Ms. Iredale said.

"Certainly, people are afraid. People have been hiding in their homes in their communities, without food, without water, without [connections] to the outside world, to families and friends," she said. "They need shelter, they need food, they need water, in some cases medical attention."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that Canada's role will focus on responding to the humanitarian crisis, although the government has yet to specify the details. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said last week that Canada will consider ways to assist Mali's neighbours affected by the crisis.

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The European Union said Tuesday it will provide an additional €20-million ($26-million Canadian) in emergency aid for Mali. The EU's commissioner for international co-operation, Kristalina Georgieva, appealed to other donor nations to "act swiftly."

In addition to appeals for new humanitarian aid, Canada and other Western nations can expect other calls for cash. French officials said Tuesday that an international donors' conference, to be held Jan. 29 in Addis Ababa, will seek €340-million ($450-million Canadian) to fund Malian and West African troops.

Canada is already providing some humanitarian aid to Malians, even though it cut off direct aid to the country's government after a coup last March. Funding from the Canadian International Development Agency provides small cash payments to displaced Malians, in some cases in cash-for-work programs.

Those programs stem from the Sahel food crisis that hit Mali hard last year, and which still marks the country, even during a war. The UN launched an appeal for funding for Mali last year, but only reached about 70 per cent of its target. "It's just simply not enough," Ms. Iredale said.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More


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