A peace deal in June failed to end the violence or stem the flow of refugees
DAKAR, Nov 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands have fled tribal fighting, lawlessness and food shortages in eastern Mali in recent weeks, and the number of Malian refugees in Niger is now the largest since Mali's conflict erupted in 2012, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
Some 4,000 Malian refugees have crossed the border since October, bringing the total number of registered refugees in Niger to 54,000, with a further 3,000 awaiting registration, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).
"It is not all-out combat, it is lawlessness. There is an absence of administration in the east, there is not sufficient security," spokesman Leo Dobbs told a news briefing.
Conflict in Mali erupted in 2012, when a loose coalition of separatist rebels and al Qaeda-linked militants swept across the north of the country, forcing 50,000 Malians to seek refuge in Niger at the height of the violence, according to the UNHCR.
A French-led military intervention in 2013 drove the militants from the main towns they had occupied, but armed groups forced the Malian army out of posts in the north last year and still attack Malian soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers.
A peace deal in June between the government and the separatists failed to end the violence or stem the flow of Malian refugees to Niger, though two rival Tuareg clans in northern Mali ended a decades-old feud last month.
"This is a concerning and unexpected development that is putting a strain on our operation in Niger," Dobbs said.
Most of the recent refugees arrived from rural towns in eastern Mali after escaping fighting between tribes, while others have fled because insecurity has hindered access to grazing land and threatened their livelihoods, the UNHCR said.
Many female refugees said their animals had been stolen, their children could not go to school and public buildings had been damaged in the absence of national authorities.
While some refugees in camps in Niger want to return home, many have been moving out of tents and replacing them with houses made from mud - indicating that they expect to remain in the country for the foreseeable future, according to the UNHCR.
"We have repatriated people, more than 900 this year. But it's been dwarfed by the number who started coming over in large numbers, especially in the last two months," Dobbs said.
Gains made in the camps in terms of high school enrolment, good nutrition and comparatively low poverty levels are under threat due to the new arrivals and shrinking budgets, he added.
The UNHCR needs $20.5 million to support the Malian refugees in Niger, of which $5.2 million - 26 percent - has been funded. (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, additional Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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