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GOUDEBOU, Burkina Faso, March 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - T he United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) counted up to three times the actual number of people fleeing conflict in Mali, data from camps in neighboring West African nations has shown, raising questions about wastage of donor funds.
At camps in Burkina Faso, the initial registration completed in May 2012 suggested that 107,000 Malians had fled an offensive that year by Islamist rebels and their Tuareg separatist allies.
However, this month's final registration phase, including finger printing and biometric operations like iris scans, came up with only 34,000, according to UNHCR data.
With a wave of major refugee crises in Africa from South Sudan to Central African Republic, estimated figures are crucial for donors to allocate funding to the humanitarian response.
However, the Mali data suggest such initial estimates, for which officials count the head of the household and accept his declaration on number of dependents, are being exploited.
UNHCR sources said Malian Tuareg chiefs cut deals with village elders in Burkina Faso to present local children as their own to gain extra rations which they later sold.
"I saw it with my own eyes - truck loads of local children arriving for registration at the camps," said one source who asked not to be named. "Some of the Tuaregs were saying they had up to 15 children in their care and nobody could say otherwise."
Cyprien Fabre from the European Union Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), a major donor to UNHCR, said it knew nothing about this but accepted over-registration as normal, especially in drought-ridden regions where locals are desperate for food.
"It has happened in the past and it will probably happen in the future," he said. "Initially, it may be difficult to establish accurate figures but we expect a quick shift to get more accurate numbers when things have stabilized."
UNHCR says the transition to individual registration with photographs should take three months. It was finished in Burkina Faso six months after refugee numbers stabilized in 2012.
In Mauritania, 108,000 refugees were initially reported but only 54,000 remained after individual registration a year later. That prompted ECHO and other donors to suspend funding.
Mali was plunged into conflict in 2012 when Tuareg separatists launched a northern uprising. The government's failure to tackle this sparked a military coup that allowed Islamist fighters to seize control of northern Mali. France intervened in January 2013 to destroy the Islamists enclave.
Initial UNHCR figures suggested a total of around 500,000 people were displaced internally and into neighboring states.
Abdouraouf Gnon-Konde, senior registration officer at the UNHCR West Africa bureau, said one reason for the overestimation was that refugee pastoralists drifted in and out of camps.
"In phase one, you're trying to save as many lives as you can. You're not so concerned with the actual numbers," he said.
He said that UNHCR was caught off guard by Mali and lacked staff on the ground in Burkina Faso when it broke. The Syria crisis then made it hard to attract funds and top-tier staff.
UNHCR also had to decide on whether to spend scarce money counting refugees or serving their humanitarian needs, he said.
Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Heneghan