Desperate Conditions in Camps Causing Disease Among Malian Refugees

Conflict in northern Mali is still forcing large numbers of people to flee their homeland and seek sanctuary elsewhere in the countries of the Sahel region, but the conditions in the camps where they are living are themselves leading to disease and suffering.

According to UNHCR, approximately 150,000 Malian refugees are living in camps in Burkina Faso (Ferrerio, Dibissi, Ngatourou-niénié, and Gandafabou camps), Mauritania (Mbera camp), and Niger (Abala, Mangaize, and Ayorou camps). Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been working in these eight camps since March 2012, providing primary and maternal health care and treating malnutrition. MSF is also vaccinating children between six months and fifteen years old for measles. Nearly 12,000 consultations and 5,000 vaccinations have been carried out since the beginning of the year.

Nearly 67,000 refugees—mainly women and children—have arrived in the border town of Fassala, Mauritania, since January 2012. “At the border crossing at Fassala, Mauritania, people are arriving thirsty and showing signs of fatigue,” explains Karl Nawezi, MSF project manager in Mauritania. After being registered by the authorities, refugees wait in a transit camp before being transferred to Mbera, a small, isolated village in the Mauritanian desert, just 30 kilometers [about 19 miles] from the Mali border.

Poor Living Conditions in the Camps

The refugees in Mbera are totally dependent on humanitarian aid. An insufficient number of tents has been distributed, however. Families are assembled under large tents called “meeting points” that leave them exposed to the elements. Fed up with waiting, some construct their own makeshift shelters out of straw mats and pieces of fabric to protect themselves from sand and dust storms. “In Mauritania, as is the case elsewhere [in the Sahel refugee camps], people are suffering from diarrhea, respiratory infections, and skin infections because of the poor conditions in the camps,” says Nawezi.

Families Fleeing in Panic

Last year the movements of people across the Malian border were organized, but a recent increase in military activity in Mali caused about 14,000 refugees to flee in panic from Timbuktu, Léré, Goundam, Larnab, and Nianfuke. Many arrived in Mbera with almost nothing after traveling for several days. “Recent developments in the conflict have caused panic,” says Nawezi. “People have just fled, fearful of getting caught in the crossfire.”

Malnutrition a Constant Concern

In November 2012, a nutritional survey taken in Mbera revealed that nearly one in five children (17 percent) was malnourished and that 4.6 percent of children were suffering from the most severe form of malnutrition upon arriving at the camp. MSF medical teams have expanded their activities to prevent and treat cases of severe malnutrition. “The main challenges are to ensure that children are vaccinated against disease, protected from malaria, and have access to food that’s appropriate to their needs,” says Nawezi.

MSF has set up therapeutic feeding centers to care for the most malnourished children. These facilities have already admitted 1,000 children across Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Once admitted, patients are given special milk and nutrient-rich therapeutic food. As malnourished children are more susceptible to illnesses like measles, malaria, and diarrhea, their health must be monitored closely.

MSF is an independent medical humanitarian organization that provides health care while observing the principles of impartiality and neutrality. MSF does not receive any government funding for its activities in Mali, which are financed entirely by private donations. The organization is working in Timbuktu, Gao, Ansongo, Douentza, Konna, and Mopti. MSF has also managed a 350-bed pediatric hospital in Koutiala, southern Mali, since 2009. MSF has been working in Mali since 1992. 

Malian refugees arrived exhausted and in fear as they flee from fighting across northern Mali, at the border in Fassala, Mauritania, July 18, 2012. A convoy of about 1200 new refugees leaves for the closest camp at Mbera . According to UNHCR, there are roughly 92,000 refugees have arrived in the last four months to the Mberra camp, and anywhere from 200 to 1200 are arriving daily. Since February 2012, MSF provides primary, secondary health care and maternal health care and nutrition activities in Bassikounou district . MSF also runs nutrition programs in Hodh el Chargui Assaba and Brakna regions.
Mauritania 2012 © Lynsey Addario/VII