Malian Refugees Compound Problems in the Sahel

Just as the food crisis and famine in the Horn of Africa becomes manageable for aid groups, another crisis begins on the other side of the continent in the Sahel region of West Africa. On the edges of the Sahara Desert, drought is not uncommon, but is becoming more frequent with major food emergencies in 2005, 2008 and 2010. This time, the ongoing consequences of the war in Libya for migrant workers, a Tuareg Rebellion in Northern Mali that started in January, and the recent unrest in Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire have contributed to lower incomes and higher food prices throughout the region, leaving an estimated 10 – 14 million people in need of food, a number that could increase to over 20 million,according to aid groups.

The good news is unlike the famine in the Horn of Africa, this food crisis is garnering attention much earlier in the crisis cycle; if coupled with quick action, it may mitigate some of the worst effects of the emergency. The bad news is the outbreak of fighting in Mali is pushing thousands of refugees over the border into neighboring countries whose own resources are severely strained.

Rebellions among the Tuareg, Malian and Nigerien governments are nothing new- several have occurred in the last century. But in past years, former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi served as a pacifying force in the region for Tuareg  frustrations, while at the same time arming and using them in his own military forces. This is why many analysts carefully watched the situation as pro-Gaddafi Tuareg fighters began returning to Mali at the end of the revolution in Libya, and it appears that the fears of what could happen are coming to pass.

The new rebellion would threaten stability in the region regardless of the circumstances, but coupled with the regional food crisis, countries simply do not have the resources to cope with the estimated 28,000 refugees that have already left Mali. This means that despite the early attention the food crisis has gained, unless a concerted aid plan is enacted, the Sahel Food Crisis could still result in a major humanitarian disaster.

Originally published on Foreign Policy Blogs