Burkina Faso

Central Sahel is rapidly becoming one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises

Unprecedented levels of armed violence, rights violations, and displacement amplified by the consequences of climate change are drastically affecting the lives of people in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger – the Central Sahel region. The situation is increasingly becoming a complex humanitarian crisis that is widely ignored.

In the past two years, from 2018 to 2020, the number of internally displaced people in the Central Sahel region has, according to the UN, increased from 70,000 to 1.5 million. That is a staggering twentyfold increase in just two years. Added to that are about 300,000 refugees and asylum seekers.

The humanitarian situation in the Central Sahel region consisting of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, is one of the world’s fastest-growing crises – and a complex one – affecting the lives of millions of people.

More than 13 million people including five million children across the three countries are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance such as food, shelter, and access to clean water, health, and education. Moreover, a further six million people have been pushed into extreme poverty as a result of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The situation in Central Sahel is spiralling out of control at a frightening pace. Millions of people are displaced because of escalating violence. They are affected by poverty, hunger, lack of access to basic services and rights, and further compounded by the consequences of climate change. This is truly disturbing. Yet, the situation is both under-covered and underfunded,” says Charlotte Slente, DRC’s Secretary-General.

Devastating consequences for civilians

Insecurity in the Northern part of Mali is historically linked to a myriad of reasons such as porosity of borders, competition over scarce resources, trafficking of arms, drugs and people, and the presence of armed extremist groups.

In 2012, the conflict in Libya spilled over into Mali and ignited these underlying tensions, sparking a rebellion in the northern part of the country. Despite a fragile cease-fire in 2015, the conflict eventually spread from Northern Mali, and in 2018 it dramatically expanded into Burkina Faso and Niger.

The underlying causes in the crises include recurrent experiences with or risks of human rights violations. A series of crises, pressures, service dysfunctions and poor governance have reinforced people's sense of frustration, discrimination, injustice and inequality. 

These armed conflicts are rooted in public demands that underline the need for protection. This includes emergency responses as well as a strengthening of the protective environment and quality services that are accessible to all. 

The potential for conflict is further exacerbated by the effects of climate change. The region is warming at a faster pace than the global average making the patterns of frequent droughts and floods unpredictable with devastating consequences.

The situation in Central Sahel is spiralling out of control at a frightening pace.

Charlotte Slente, Secretary General, DRC

As always in armed conflicts, it is civilians that bear the brunt of the violence. According to the UN, more than 6,600 people have been killed in the past 12 months, 7.4 million people are dangerously food insecure, more than 150 health centres are closed or not fully functioning, and 3,500 schools are closed due to direct attacks.

Added to this are the negative long-term consequences of the global COVID-19 pandemic. To displaced-affected communities, the consequences of the pandemic pose an additional threat – or a ‘crisis in the crisis’ – in the form of increased poverty, loss of access to rights and further potential for conflict.

A dangerous and underfunded environment

DRC has been present in West Africa since 1998 and has since 2006 promoted a regional strategy for the Sahel. As one of the largest humanitarian actors in the region, DRC is present in some of the most inaccessible, conflict-ridden, and vulnerable areas in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

But as the conflicts in the region have escalated, the working environment for humanitarians have become increasingly difficult. There have been several attacks against humanitarian workers in the region, and in August, seven employees of the French NGO ACTED were killed in an armed attack.

“Aid workers are not a target. I cannot stress this enough. As humanitarians we are committed to responding to the most urgent needs no matter on which side of the frontlines they occur. It is adamant that all parties to all conflicts take action to ensure the safety of humanitarian workers,” says Charlotte Slente.

Moreover, the humanitarian response plan to support the most vulnerable people in the spiralling crisis in the Central Sahel is dangerously underfunded.

As of early October 2020, only 39 per cent of what is needed to save and protect lives in the region is funded. However, on 20 October 2020, a ministerial roundtable on the Central Sahel situation co-hosted by Denmark, Germany, the European Union and the United Nations was convened to galvanise political support for humanitarian action in the region.

As one of the largest humanitarian actors in the region, DRC was a panellist during the Senior Official Meeting together with UNHCR to present protection issues and recommendations and also participated with a side event.

At the conference, 24 governments and institutional donors pledged $1.7 billion in support. Once released, the funds will help some 10 million people for the remainder of 2020 and through 2021. Furthermore, a number of policy commitments were also announced towards addressing the Central Sahel crisis in a manner that respects international humanitarian law and human rights while also addressing the root causes of the crisis.

DRC's project “Women Leadership for Inclusive Security Governance in the Sahel” was selected for presentation at the Paris Peace Forum on 11-13 November 2020. More information on the project is available on the Paris Peace Forum blog

Read more about our work in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.