Mauritania: Malian Refugees at Risk of Malnutrition Due to Canceled Food Aid

Avril Benoit/MSF

BASSIKNOU, MAURITANIA/NEW YORK, JULY 2, 2015—The cancellation of monthly food rations will likely increase global acute malnutrition among 49,500 Malian refugees in southeastern Mauritania, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned today, calling on the international donor community to ensure that the refugees have reliable sources of food.

The World Food Program (WFP), faced with financial shortfalls, has been unable to secure financing for a general food distribution in July in Mbera, a desert camp where refugees from the conflict in northern Mali fled in 2012. The UN refugee agency UNHCR, which is responsible for the management of the camp, also says it lacks the funds to propose an alternative to the inevitable consequence of increased malnutrition.

"Global acute malnutrition in the camp was around 20 percent in 2012 when we first started our activities here," said Dr. Mahama Gbané, MSF medical coordinator in Mauritania. "We've worked together with agencies like WFP to bring this down to an estimated nine percent. It would be tragic if we allowed the health of the most vulnerable to slip back to catastrophic levels."

This follows an already precarious situation where rice rations were cut from 12 to 5.4 kilograms per person in June. The general food distribution was canceled entirely in March, which then caused a surge in admissions of sick children to MSF therapeutic feeding programs in Mbera—an increase from 30 to 79 admissions per month.

Despite recent peace agreements signed by some armed opposition groups in Mali, people in Mbera camp still do not feel safe to return home.

Since 2012, their survival in the desert, where temperatures reach 122°F and sandstorms are common, has largely depended on humanitarian assistance. A number of the refugees have managed to keep livestock, but successive droughts have drastically depleted the residual pasture for grazing animals across the Sahel. Recent attacks and pillaging of towns and villages in northern Mali have increased fears that it will be a long time before refugees feel safe enough to return to their homeland.

"People have tried to grow food in community gardens, but the scorching heat, blowing sand, and insects have destroyed most of the crops," said Maya Walet Mohamed, leader of the women's committee in the camp. "The timing of the gap in food distributions is all the more cruel because people are already fasting during daylight hours for the month of Ramadan, and now they have little food to break their fast at sunset."  

Three years into their exile, most refugees have sold what little they had left to buy meat and milk—the staples of the traditional nomadic diet, which are not part of the WFP's distributions. These foods are now scarce as well. "This is critical for us as well as the Mauritanian people, because the animals are dying or worthless because of the droughts," Mohamed said.

MSF started working in Mauritania in 1994. Today, 370 aid workers support the Mauritanian health ministry by providing free services including primary care, emergency surgery, and sexual and reproductive health care in the country's southeastern region, including Mbera refugee camp, Bassiknou, and Fassala. 

Refugees like Fatimatou Walet Omar have tried to grow crops in community gardens in Mbera camp, but available water can’t beat the scorching heat, blowing sand and insects.
Avril Benoit/MSF