08/08/2020 – Some 15,000 Malians were moved out of two large refugee camps in western Niger in late 2019 to live in nearby towns where they will be safer from jihadist attacks, the United Nations announced for the first time on Wednesday.
« The closure of the camps in December 2019 was a joint decision (by the UN refugee agency and the government of Niger) and was accelerated last year with the deterioration of the security situation, » Benoit Moreno, a UNHCR official in the capital Niamey, told AFP.
The camps at Tabarey Barey and Mangaize had sheltered Malians fleeing violence in their own country since 2012.
Western Niger is the scene of frequent attacks by jihadist groups, with attacks at Tabarey Barey and Mangaize killing 10 refugees and members of the Nigerien forces who were providing security between 2014 and 2016.
For « the government of Niger, the camps are not a solution as there are parallel (basic public) services, and the people are isolated, » Moreno said.
The residents have been transferred to the towns of Ayorou and Ouallam, also in the Tillaberi region bordering Mali, he said.
Moreno said the UNHCR will work to help the refugees to integrate with the local population with a view to their eventual return to Mali.
The UNHCR has handed over possession of the two camps to the Niger government, an interior ministry official told public radio.
Houses will be built for refugees and internally displaced Niger citizens to « facilitate integration », he said.
In Ayorou, which hosts refugees from the Tabarey Barey camp, some are living with local families, according to the city’s mayor Zakaria Oumarou.
« There are a few houses that are there (for the refugees) and then there are shelters, » he said.
The transfer of the refugees « has a double advantage: it shelters the refugees from terrorist attacks and the (local) population will benefit from social services (health, education, food) » provided by the UN, another local elected official told AFP.
In addition, the Nigerien authorities suspect that the camps were sheltering « terrorists or their accomplices », the official said.
Niger is home to nearly 60,000 Malian refugees who fled their country’s north after it fell under the control of Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups in 2012, according to the UN.
A French-led military intervention pushed them out, but swathes of the poor West African country remain out of government control and awash with armed groups.The Mali-based Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) carries out frequent cross-border attacks into Niger’s west, while the southeast of the country faces regular assaults from Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram.
Sahel-Elite (Bamako-Mali) | Photo by AFP