The landscape is desolate. Not a tree or a bush provides adequate shelter or shade. The wind is howling, children’s faces are streaked with dark lines of tears as the windswept sand hurts their eyes.
Halima is a young women who lives in the refugee camp of Ayorou Niger. She her left her hometown of Tabakota in Mali three month ago with 20 members of her family. “I have a small child you see, so when armed men started shooting, I got scared and left town, actually the whole family did,” she said.
Halima is grateful her family were given millet and vegetable oil. She is particularly happy about the 40kg charcoal bag she stands by. “I will be able to cook for the whole family for about three weeks with this,” she said.
CADEV, Caritas Niger is working in four camps helping 18,000 Malian refugees. They fled there after rebels seized the north of Mali last year, triggering a flow of refugees in Africa’s Sahel region. Caritas Niger is registering an increase of refuges since the French military intervention in January.
“We have two types of Malian refugees here in Niger,” said Abdou Douramane Amadou (Nasser), Head of the Refugee Programme for Caritas Niger. “We have Malians in the camps and we have nomads outside the camps. They are not as easily accessed and assisted. They keep moving with their camels and goats.”
Niger is desperately poor and struggles to cope with the influx of refugees. The country suffers from severe droughts as well as locust infestations, food crisis and malnutrition, as 60 percent of the 15 million population live below the poverty line.
Caritas has been able to assist the refugees in Halima’s camp but the funds are running out. “We did not manage to give charcoal to the whole camp, only 800 of the most vulnerable families got it. Unless we get new funds, there will be no charcoal next month,” said Nasser.
One concern is the environmental impact of having a large refugee population in the area. “The refugees as well as the nomads have been using up the wood and pasture land. You can see in landscape that there are no trees for miles,” said Nasser. “This is why the charcoal was a good initiative and we hope we can continue with it, as the areas around the camps are severely damaged”.
CRS (Caritas member in the USA) has been assisting five thousand nomads in two regions covering Ayorou and Abala. “We know that the funding will end at the end of this month and we are not sure who will support them after,” said Nasser.
Another pressing issue is health care. Local capacities are already stretched but now with the refugees, they are depleted further. “We need more basic medical supplies such as painkillers and antibiotics. We can provide some, but not enough,” he said.
As for local communities who find themselves having to share resources with the nomads, CADEV is testing a gardening project in two villages. There is a distribution of seeds in the villages, technical assistance, irrigation, and the teaching of gardening techniques.
“We hope this will be a successful project so we will be able to extend it to more villages, and benefit many people, making them resilient,” said Nasser.
There are some positive developments. One is in Abala village. “Since the nomads and refugees have been in the area, the local water tower has now been repaired and is giving water again,” said one Caritas staff member.
For Dassine, another refugee from Mali, Caritas has been a life saver.
“We left Kidal in Mali six month ago as the fighting was getting bad, Caritas was here to receive us. They gave us documents to access the camp and gave our family a kitchen kit with pots and pans, a bucket and cups. We were even given medical supplies and today we got charcoal, which is great. I won’t need to go and collect twigs miles away to cook now,” she said.
The mood of the refugee has greatly improved since the French army has re-established telecommunication systems within Mali.
“Comforting information is coming in by phone, contact is re-established and it is so important psychologically for the refugees to find out know how friends and families are. To know if their goods have not been taken and if their houses have not been destroyed. We see a lot more smiles,” said Nasser.