UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi tells conference that COVID-19 adds a new threat to a region already grappling with record numbers forced to flee their homes.
By Jonathan Clayton and Sarah Schafer
GENEVA/COPENHAGEN – UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on Tuesday called for urgent and sustained action to meet the growing humanitarian needs in the Sahel region of West Africa, citing “unspeakable violence” perpetrated against civilians that has forced nearly two million people to flee their homes.
“We need to inject a sense of urgency in this response that I’m afraid I do not see yet coming out of the international community,” Grandi noted in remarks delivered virtually to the International Ministerial Roundtable on the Central Sahel in Copenhagen.
Forced displacement is always a measure of crisis. Since it’s growing, it means the crisis is not being sufficiently addressed.” The Roundtable, hosted by the Governments of Denmark and Germany, the European Union along with the United Nations, is part of a wider effort to bring attention to the plight of countries in the Central Sahel, which includes Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.
As of Tuesday night, more than 20 donors had pledged over $1.7 billion, including $985 million for this year, to help provide food and water, health services, shelter, education and more. But more funds and international cooperation are needed.
Calling for a more strategic approach to the Central Sahel, Grandi pointed to the need for a “Marshall Plan” and urged the EU to lead in support of states in the region and respond with “unified, strategic and substantial interventions.” Without this support, he warned, displacement would only “accelerate” and spread.
With nearly two million refugees and internally displaced people and 650,000 people displaced so far this year, he praised the host countries in the region for their continued generosity.
He also acknowledged their important step of launching the Bamako Process at ministerial level, a regional instrument aimed at strengthening the regional capacity to respond to population movements in a more comprehensive manner.
“Building their capacity is fundamental,” Grandi said, also urging faster action by development actors and by international financial institutions. “We can’t wait five years for those interventions to bear fruit, especially in areas like education,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the displacement crisis created by the dangerous combination of armed conflict, poverty and climate change.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, increased aid to the Central Sahel this year. It has provided emergency shelter to 81,000 displaced people, used mobile health clinics to reach survivors of sexual and gender-based violence and provided essential healthcare services to more than 300,000 people in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Escalating violence has made it almost impossible for aid workers to reach those in need. On October 4 in northern Burkina Faso, armed assailants ambushed a convoy of displaced people trying to return home, killing 25 men in front of their families. Some 4,000 schools in recent years have been destroyed or closed affecting tens of thousands of schoolchildren. In September, a group of men shot and killed seven aid workers from ACTED and IMPACT, two organizations with which UNHCR works closely, as well as the group’s Nigerien guide.
Along with expressing concern over trends of threats to humanitarians working in the region, Grandi also strongly appealed for coordinated security operations and urged for the protection of civilian populations in the Sahel, pointing out that those carried out irresponsibly have already caused “further suffering and further displacement.”
Acknowledging that while a focus on security is important, he added, “Security…is a failure if it is not in connection with humanitarian and development action.”