Ethnic violence pushes Malians into Burkina Faso crisis zone

DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ethnic violence in central Mali has driven 3,000 people into northern Burkina Faso since February, straining dwindling food and medical supplies in that part of the West African nation, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

More refugees are expected to arrive, driven by a surge in fighting between Peul and Dogon communities in Mali’s Mopti region, said a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

The influx is putting pressure on vulnerable host communities in Burkina Faso’s north, which is facing its worst hunger in years coupled with growing violence, aid agencies said.

“We think that the influx of new asylum-seekers might aggravate the situation,” UNHCR spokeswoman Marlies Cardoen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Poor rains last year have left almost a million people in need of food aid in Burkina Faso, while attacks by a homegrown Islamist group are on the rise.

The new arrivals - including 2,000 Malians and 1,000 Burkinabe who had settled in Mali - are mostly staying with friends and relatives in volatile, hard-to-reach areas near the border, said UNHCR.

“We want them to come to Ouahigouya (the nearest town) or the refugee camp where we can register them all and give them food aid,” said Cardoen by phone.

But some prefer to remain in the border area because they are expecting family to join them, hope to go home soon, or do not know of other options, she said.

While 3,000 people will not make a big difference on a national scale, it could have an impact in host communities, said Christian Munezero, head of mission for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“It is worrying, especially if it’s on the level of one community or a few villages,” he said.

The refugees have no work opportunities, and parents fear sending their children to school because of attacks, said UNHCR.

The 3,000 new arrivals add to about 24,000 Malians who have fled to Burkina Faso since Islamists seized Mali’s desert north in 2012. French troops intervened to push them back a year later, but Islamist attacks and ethnic fighting persist.