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The hunger season puts refugee children at risk in Burkina Faso's triple crisis

6 June 2012: “What I want more than anything is to be reunited with my parents, in tranquillity,” says Madi, 13, a Tuareg refugee who fled her village in northern Mali when she saw military men arrive with Kalashnikovs, firing into the air. Now her home is a ragged tent in Mentao refugee camp in the arid savannah of northern Burkina Faso, 45 miles from the Malian border; she knows that her parents escaped - but does not know where they are.

Madi is one of thousands of refugee children separated from their parents during violence in Mali who risk being targeted by child traffickers and rebels enlisting child soldiers to fight, experts have warned.

Children’s rights organisation Plan says practical child protection measures must be scaled up to respond to the emergency, as Tuareg rebels take control of northern Mali and people flee villages ransacked by retaliating Malian military.

“Children are particularly vulnerable in conflict situations, as boys and girls are in a new environment far from their schools, friends and neighbours,” said Dr Unni Krishnan, head of emergency response and preparedness for Plan. “Children get abused and some are trafficked or recruited into fighting forces, and pre-existing threats such as domestic violence and child labour are exacerbated.”

So far, 61,000 refugees - amongst them thousands of children - have fled over the border into Burkina Faso and Niger, where a food crisis is already crippling rural communities who have suffered consecutive bad harvests caused by alternating floods and droughts.

Triple disaster

The unfolding “triple disaster” of food crisis, violence and displacement is increasingly considered to be one of the worst humanitarian disasters for many years.

The Tuareg and Arab refugees in Burkina Faso’s refugee camps - Mentao, Gandafabou and Damba - claim the Malian military are targeting anyone with lighter skin. Fati Walet Mohamed, 30, fled her village 90 km from Timbuktu. She arrived at Mentao with her 12-year-old child, Amadou, after her husband, a shepherd, was shot along with his herd of sheep.

She said: “Whoever they find, they kill - women, old people, animals. I try to forget my children, but I can't. I think of them all the time. My husband had done nothing. He was innocent and not a rebel.”

But in Burkina Faso, refugees have found themselves caught up in another crisis. Around 35% of Burkinabé children are stunted and cases of severe child malnutrition are increasing as the critical “hunger season” takes hold from now until the next harvest in September.

Severe acute malnutrition

UNICEF estimates that 1.1 million children under 5 across the Sahel region - which encompasses Burkina, Chad, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal - are now threatened with severe acute malnutrition. The global acute malnutrition rate is suspected to rise up to 19% because of the Sahel crisis.

UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Valerie Amos visited Mentao camp last week, meeting refugees and touring a nutrition centre run by the Red Cross where mothers bring their malnourished babies for food and medical treatment.

Baroness Amos said: "It's not about one crisis or the other being a priority. Obviously, you had a food insecurity situation here in Burkina Faso before you had substantial numbers of refugees. That's why, for us, it's so important that we're helping the local community, as well as supporting the refugee population."

Malian refugees

To date, there are 146,900 displaced Malians and another 188,788 who have fled their homeland. The added numbers of refugees means the government of Burkina Faso, the UN and non-governmental organisations have their resources stretched to the limits.

The conflict in Mali started in January when secular Tuareg group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) staged a push to create an independent state called Azawad in the desert north.

The military coup in early March which saw Captain Amadou Sanogo and a group of low-ranking officers oust the government in Bamako just before the scheduled election helped rebel groups gain a grip on the north.

Emergency aid

Humanitarian agencies are warning that the scenario could last up to a year. Plan, the Red Cross, Oxfam and Medicins Sans Frontiers are operating water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, food distribution and nutrition and medical back-up facilities in camps in Burkina Faso and Niger.

Plan is also introducing an education and ‘emotional first aid’ programme for refugee children in Mentao camp from next month – and distributing school kits to displaced children in Mali.

Dr Krishnan said: “In addition to the violence and displacement, there can be long lasting emotional impacts on children. Our experience shows that responding to the emotional and psychosocial needs of children should be a key aspect in relief and recovery efforts.”

Baroness Amos said lessons had been learnt from last year’s food crisis in the Horn of Africa – but emphasised that more must be done.

She said: “The response has been much faster, we have released money much earlier because we knew from the Horn of Africa crisis that we got to it too late, so it’s helped us really in terms of the lessons that we've learnt from that.”

Read more on Plan's West Africa food crisis response

Find out more about Plan's work in Burkina Faso