The high cost of refuge as a startling reality
When I visited Bamako in October 2012, when the country was nine months into the crisis, the families who agreed to speak with me all shared a similar story. They had fled the violence that had engulfed the north, and then sold what was left of their belongings in order to pay for safe transport and refuge in one of the major towns in the country’s south.
Still shaken by the fear of what they had run from, worried about their lack of money to buy food and other essential goods and stranded from their livelihoods and support networks, they felt lost in a city where the skills they had gained in the north suddenly seemed useless. The high cost of living in this new and unfamiliar environment played on all of their minds.
Returning to the country this March, little had changed for these people. In the early stages of their displacement, many had initially stayed with friends and family members who had opened their homes to them despite the constraints the extra mouths placed on their family budget – one family I met had taken in over two dozen friends and relatives from the north! And when, inevitably, their friends and family could no longer cope with the extra burden, many had no option but to dip into their already meagre savings in order to rent their own accommodations.
Rumour had it that when the money inevitably ran out, some families are left with no choice but to skip out on the bill and find the next flat that would take them. This created negative perceptions towards the displaced amid the communities they were living in; tensions Mali could well do without at this time.
Action must be taken to reverse a disturbing trend
A recent Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) assessment of 380 families in Bamako confirmed the primary needs the IDPs described to me during my last two missions to the country: food, shelter, employment, education, water, hygiene and sanitation (WASH), protection and psychological support. Yet it also unearthed worrying statistics relating to housing: a quarter of those interviewed have indeed been moving “frequently” because they cannot afford the rent, or live in undignified conditions.
Even more troubling is that over a third of IDPs are living in fear of being evicted from their homes, kicked out of the safe refuge they so desperately need right now. Around one fifth indicated that they would return home if they can no longer support their families, regardless of the dangers they would face.
NRC’s Shelter Programme is doing sterling work to address this issue by providing better facilities for IDPs, safe sources of water for drinking and hygiene, as well as employment opportunities to help restore the dignity of people who are trapped in displacement, while simultaneously helping to reduce the tension and burden on the host communities.
More need to follow suit. The international community needs to widen its view from military activities and act quickly to address the issues faced by those living with the consequences of the conflict, both the IDPs and the hosts. More funding is needed to help provide secure and dignified housing for people displaced by conflict, and to promote employment opportunities for both IDPs and members of the host communities.