A false sense of security for thousands planning to return
The retreat of armed Islamist groups and the takeover of their strongholds by French, Malian and West African troops have signalled a sea of change for the nearly 230,000 people living in displacement in Mali: the prospect of going home. A recent survey by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) demonstrated than an overwhelming 93 percent of the internally displaced people (IDPs) want to return home to the north, and soon. A majority said they will make the journey as soon they are reassured it is safe to do so and as the bus lines and roads open up, while others will wait for the agricultural season and for the school year to end. Any perception that it is safe to return to the north has been perpetuated in some areas by public announcements encouraging IDPs to return home, as well as an overwhelming urge by Malians to return to normalcy.
A different reality awaits
The briefing paper, however, highlights a very different reality of what people may find once they arrive home. In short, the military intervention has not cured all evils; invisible threats remain. There are reports of on-going ethnic tensions, alongside fears that Islamist militants will regroup in the mountains, where they are believed to have fled, and later come out of the woodwork to continue their campaign of guerrilla-style raids and suicide bombings in the north.
In addition, a severe shortage of food remains an overwhelming concern, as the conflict has exacerbated the chronic food insecurity that has plagued the Sahel region for years. Crops have been left unattended and many merchants have fled of fear of reprisal attacks, reducing already limited food supplies.
A call for the international community to not ‘drop the ball’ on Mali
IDMC highlighted the need for the international community to act quickly and grasp the opportunity to bring Mali back from the brink. Humanitarian actors should take advantage of the widening window of opportunity to re-enter now secure parts of the country, in order to be in a position to address the needs of the displaced as well as to prepare and coordinate return movements. Their presence is needed to develop contingency plans in anticipation of an imminent French withdrawal and the possibility of a resurgence in violence and repeated displacement.
Unfortunately, the ability of humanitarians and the Malian government to address needs of its citizens is hampered by a serious lack of funding and capacity. Only 3 percent of the estimated 373 million USD in funding needed to rebuild the country has been met. And while the needs of IDPs are in urgent need of help to rebuild their lives and live in peace, the communities in the south that have hosted them have felt serious social and economic strain.
Mali is at a tipping point. There is a real threat that the country will continue to slide down a slippery slope to perpetual chaos, particularly with a military transition on the horizon.
The international community must not drop the ball on Mali at this crucial crossroads, and must act now to assist the Malian people to rebuild their lives and ensure regional stability.