Sahel crises leave devastating impacts on the most vulnerable
In the Sahel, conflict, violence, displacement, as well as socio-economic crises are having compounded and devastating impacts on the most vulnerable people and causing persisting and fast-escalating needs. In 2022, over 30 million Sahelians will need assistance and protection, over one million more than in 2021. Six countries – Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria – have developed Response Plans for 2022, requiring a total of US$2.4 billion.
The three-border area shared by Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger is the epicenter of a fast-growing crisis with unprecedented levels of armed violence and insecurity. Over 12.8 million people need humanitarian assistance across Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.
Civilians caught between armed groups, intercommunal violence, and military operations are forced to flee their homes to seek safety. Over 5.8 million people are uprooted in the Sahel, more than ever before.
In the Central Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali, and western Niger), insecurity has rapidly deteriorated, and displacement has increased by 30 per cent between 2020 and 2021, reaching 2 million internally displaced people and 132,000 refugees – including half a million forced to flee inside their countries in 2021 alone. Many of the displaced have also been forced to flee several times, further deepening their vulnerabilities.
The rapid increase is especially staggering in Burkina Faso, where armed violence has forced more than one million and four hundred people to flee their homes since the crisis began (from 47,000 at the end of 2018 – with an increase of 2927 per cent).
Insecurity and violence are threatening lives and livelihoods, disrupting access to health, water, sanitation, and hygiene services, depriving violence-affected communities' access to vital services, increasing human rights violations, and jeopardizing social cohesion.
Multi-year security trends in the Central Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, show a dramatic deterioration. Since 2015, the number of security incidents increased sixteen-fold in the Central Sahel – with the number of fatalities also increasing over ten-fold, and security incidents almost doubled in the Lake Chad basin, leading to additional displacement and needs.
Spillover effects into coastal countries, already experienced in 2021, will likely increase and affect more and more people. Trends show increased risks and violence in cross-border areas, such as between Burkina Faso and Benin, and northwest Nigeria and Recuperation Maradi in Niger. These rural areas are among the most difficult to reach and showcase high social vulnerabilities. They are home to already exposed populations and strongly suffer from violence and insecurity. In Côte d'Ivoire and Benin, two coastal countries already affected by spillover effects, the number of security incidents increased ten-fold between 2015 and 2021.
There has been an increase in violent attacks in Burkina Faso's southern regions bordering Côte d'Ivoire, leading to increasing numbers of internally displaced persons (IDP), a trend which may spill over into cross-border displacement, should violence continue southwards.
Limited livelihoods in areas of the first displacement have led to IDPs (mostly young men and heads of household) engaging in temporary secondary cross-border movements into Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana, to secure livelihoods for households left behind. Despite their vulnerable situation, once there, they are perceived as economic migrants and not assisted by authorities.
Concerted action is urgently required to curb the ongoing violence and prevent further spillover of insecurity and its impact on vulnerable communities, in Togo, Benin, Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, and beyond.
As the crisis deepens, an entire generation is affected. The education of millions of children is compromised. Across the Sahel, over 6,000 schools are closed or non-operational due to violence, jeopardizing children's future, especially girls who are the least likely to return to school after prolonged interruptions. Over 7 million children are out of school and will remain exposed to risk of abduction, enslavement, and forced recruitment.
In the Central Sahel alone, over 4,975 schools are closed or non-operational due to violence – more than half of them in Burkina Faso. The rapidly deteriorating situation is having a devastating impact on women and children's survival, education, protection, and development. Close to 5 million children in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger needed humanitarian assistance in 2021. The sharp increase in armed attacks on communities, schools, health centres, and other infrastructures is also disrupting access to basic social services. 7,312 health centres are closed or non-operational leaving millions of people without access to adequate services. Displacement and increased insecurity also limit access to water and sanitation.
Women and girls are at heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence. In Mali, the number of reported gender-based violence cases increased by 40 per cent compared to last year. Insecurity is also constraining humanitarian access. Facing worsening insecurity and a complex operational environment, aid workers are increasingly at risk, have been abducted and killed. Insecurity has forced the suspension of operations in some locations, leaving communities without access to basic assistance.
One-third of abductions of aid workers in the world in 2020 occurred in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. In 2021, 45 cases of aid worker abductions have been reported in Mali and Burkina Faso alone. These factors significantly contribute to the increased cost and slowdown of humanitarian activities. In Mali, non-state armed groups actors' increased use of improvised explosive devices (IED), destruction of infrastructure targeting the military, and blockades of villages have also reduced civilian access to basic services and humanitarian assistance.
In an increasingly complex environment, humanitarian principles are essential. Militarization and politicization constitute a major risk for a principled response. All governments, state and non-state armed groups, and all stakeholders must uphold their international humanitarian law obligations.
Aid organizations are working across the region to respond to the most urgent needs of those affected. The scaling up of the response, however, is hampered by a lack of funding and resources. As we almost reach the end of the year, less than half of the required funds have been received, putting at risk the lives of millions of Sahelians in need of assistance.
In the Central Sahel, funding levels do not match increasing needs; on average only 40 per cent has been received as of 22 December, with Mali facing the widest funding gap. The UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS), currently being implemented, outlines the overall framework for UN-wide efforts to help lift the Sahel out of crisis across security, development, and resilience pillars, complemented by humanitarian programs.
It is urgent to prioritize humanitarian action. Strategic priorities include the protection of civilians, access to food, water, sanitation, health, and education. Without sufficient resources, the crisis will further escalate, eroding communities' resilience and putting millions of children, women, and men at risk.
Humanitarian organizations are gearing up resource mobilization efforts. As part of these efforts, requests for the UN's Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) grants are being developed in Burkina Faso and Mali. A regionally hosted pooled fund to boost humanitarian operations in Central and West Africa has been launched, starting with the release of the first envelope of US$12.5 million for Niger, funding a total of 22 projects. A Burkina Faso envelope is being developed and will be finalized in January 2022.
In 2020, CERF allocated a record sum of US$96.4 million to countries of the Central Sahel, more than in any previous year, enabling a coordinated and fast humanitarian response, especially to displacement and food-related emergencies.
Life-saving aid also needs to be accompanied by longer-term interventions focused on reducing needs. Humanitarian and development efforts must be complementary, based on principles of do-no-harm and community acceptance. Investment is needed to address economic and gender inequalities, lack of access to basic services, human rights violations and non-inclusive governance, the scarcity of resources and the climate emergency, and the worrying rise in hunger. However, there must be a clear distinction between humanitarian and security objectives and between humanitarian/development and stabilization funding.
Further investments in multi-dimensional solutions are required. Host governments and local communities are first responders – they need support. Only coordinated action and strong partnership among local communities, national governments, humanitarian and development actors, and international partners and sustained investments in social services can turn the growing crisis around.