Mali refugees face ‘deplorable’ conditions: MSF

Children of Malian refugees carry buckets of water at the Mbere refugee camp on May 3, 2012, in southern Mauritania.  By Abdelhak Senna (AFP/File)

Children of Malian refugees carry buckets of water at the Mbere refugee camp on May 3, 2012, in southern Mauritania. By Abdelhak Senna (AFP/File)

PARIS (AFP) – Tens of thousands of Malian refugees are suffering “deplorable” conditions in Mauritanian desert camps, with just one toilet between 3,000 people, and two infants dying every day, an aid charity said on Friday.

Some 74,000 Malians displaced by war and ethnic tensions were in need of urgent help, with many falling ill after they arrive due to poor sanitary conditions, the Doctors without Borders (MSF) group said in a report.

“When an extension was added to Mbera camp to accommodate the new refugees arriving in January 2013, our teams witnessed a situation where there were only four latrines for 12,000 people,” MSF said.

“Humanitarian standards call for a minimum of one latrine for every 20 people”, added the group, complaining that humanitarian assistance at the Mbera camp was insufficient.

While there is “some improvement” at the camps, conditions remain “deplorable” and with no end in sight to the refugee crisis, “the challenge will be to continue to provide assistance that meets humanitarian standards,” the report said.

Since January last year, when Tuareg rebels declared the independence of Mali’s arid north before losing control to armed Islamists, more than 270,000 people have been displaced while 170,000 others fled to neighbouring countries, mainly Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, according to the United Nations.

French forces intervened in Mali in mid-January this year to assist the Malian authorities in retaking the lost territory.

MSF said that the displaced at the Mbera camp were also suffering from food insecurity and a lack of basic services, but there was no famine as “rations have improved, food is sufficient now”, said MSF emergency official Marie-Christine Ferir.

But water and shelter is scarce as temperatures soar to 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit).

Refugees receive 11 litres of water a day on average but need 20 for cooking, drinking and personal hygiene.

Children “should get a ration rich in milk and micronutrients so as to avoid malnutrition”, Ferir added.

The death rate among children has soared, according to Ferir.

“It is currently above the emergency level,” she said, adding that on average two children under the age of two die every day at Mbera, where most refugees are Tuareg, with a large group of Arabs.

“They will not move away any time soon for fear of reprisals,” said Ferir. “Arabs and Tuareg communities have faced attacks as they are seen as sympathising with Al-Qaeda-linked rebels

After an earlier rebellion in the 1990s, “some stayed for several years”, Ferir added.

Many Malian villages close to the Mauritanian border have been totally or partially abandoned since the outbreak of unrest last year.

The report also contains some harrowing testimony from those who have fled the fighting.

“I was poor in Mali, but here it’s even worse. I’ve got absolutely nothing. Also, I feel completely foreign and far away from my home country,” MSF cited 40-year-old Azarra from Timbuktu as saying.

“My daughter gave birth here and we had nothing for the baby. He’s still suffering from malnutrition and he has been admitted to the MSF programme,” added the refugee.