By Andrea Lari, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Andrea Lari is the Director of Programs at Refugees International, a DC-based non-profit organization. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
The French military intervention in Mali is just a few days old, and there is plenty of uncertainty about the operation’s strategy and potential outcomes. But one thing is clear: as this campaign escalates, more civilians are being forced to flee their homes – exacerbating a humanitarian crisis that has plagued Mali for more than a year. Governments and aid agencies in the region must be prepared for the worst and take steps immediately to assist this new wave of displaced Malians.
First, Mali’s neighbors must help civilians in the conflict zone get out of harm’s way. Though there is a need to limit the mobility of jihadist groups, there is no excuse for keeping civilian families penned into dangerous areas. Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger all must keep their borders open, and they must help Malian refugees register and get the aid they need.
Second, Malians who are fleeing fighting in the north must be allowed to enter the south of the country unmolested. There are already alarming reports of jihadist groups keeping civilians from leaving conflict areas. And while such inexcusable behavior on their part is not surprising, there are also indications that Malian authorities have engaged in similar tactics. For a sovereign state to behave this way is completely unacceptable. If these reports are confirmed, then France, the United States, and the United Nations must pressure their Malian counterparts to halt these abuses.
Third, aid agencies and state authorities in neighboring countries must help refugees to move away from the Malian border. While refugees should not be forced to move, tens of thousands of individuals will want to relocate and will need help. The U.N. and its partners have facilitated these movements for months, but the process must now be sped up dramatically: the danger to vulnerable families will only grow as Mali’s borders become more militarized.
Finally, aid agencies and their donors should be ready for the worst and anticipate that thousands more displaced Malians will seek refuge in the south of the country. In October, a colleague and I visited Mali to meet with those already displaced by the conflict and assess their situation. We found that humanitarian needs in the south were largely unmet and growing at that time, but now they will swell even more. Aid groups will need to address a wide range of issues, but their immediate focus should be identifying people in need and providing shelter, food, healthcare, and other lifesaving interventions. Many displaced Malians will also be seeking help from relatives and friends in urban areas. These host communities – already strained by previous waves of new arrivals – must be supported as well.
Action on these four issues is urgent. Whatever course Mali’s conflict might take in the coming days, governments and aid agencies must work together now to meet the needs of displaced Malians, ensure that their rights are respected, and limit the human toll of this ongoing crisis.