A surge in violence in the central Sahel region in Africa means nearly five million children will need humanitarian assistance this year, UNICEF warned on Tuesday 28 January. The Sahel has long been one of the most vulnerable regions in Africa but the surge in armed violence across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger is having a devastating impact on children’s survival, education, protection and development.
“When we look at the situation in the Central Sahel, we cannot help but be struck by the scale of violence children are facing. They are being killed, mutilated and sexually abused, and hundreds of thousands of them have had traumatic experiences”, said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa.
What’s happening in the Sahel region?
Over the past two years, armed groups have intensified attacks across the Sahel region which includes Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, but particularly in parts of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. As of November 2019, 1.2 million people were displaced, more than half of them children. This represents a two-fold increase in the number of people displaced by insecurity and armed conflict in the countries of the Central Sahel in the past 12 months.
“The region has experienced a devastating surge in terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets,” Mohamed Ibn Chambas, UN Special Representative and Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), told the Security Council in its first formal meeting of the year.
The UNOWAS chief elaborated on terrorist-attack casualties in Burkina Faso Mali and Niger, which have leapt five-fold since 2016 – with more than 4,000 deaths reported in 2019 alone as compared to some 770 three years earlier. He also flagged that the number of deaths in Burkina Faso jumped from about 80 in 2016 to over 1,800 last year.
“The humanitarian consequences are alarming”, Ibn Chambas said.
Burkina Faso is now facing the world’s fastest growing displacement crisis, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has warned, as the number of people displaced increased tenfold last year to over 560,000. The figure is predicted to skyrocket to 900,000 people by April this year as horrific violence continues to force families from their homes.
“Burkina Faso needs more than bullets and bombs. Military engagement alone is failing to protect vulnerable communities. Donors supporting military efforts to quell the extreme violence have not yet responded to the enormous humanitarian needs with equal emphasis,” warned NRC’s Secretary General Jan Egeland.
How are children being affected?
The sharp increase in armed attacks on communities, schools, health centres and other public institutions and infrastructure has reached unprecedented levels, with violence disrupting livelihoods and access to social services. Growing insecurity has also exacerbated already chronic vulnerabilities in the region, including high levels of malnutrition, poor access to clean water and sanitation facilities.
UNICEF said violence has had a devastating impact on learning, with more than 3,300 schools in the three countries closed or non-operational by the end of 2019. Overall, 650,000 children and 16,000 teachers have been affected.
This comes in addition to a significant increase of violence against children who are caught in the crossfire, with hundreds having been killed, maimed, or forcibly separated from their families.
Children and their families also face barriers in accessing essential services and food, which can put young lives at risk. As a result, more than 709,000 children under the age of five will suffer from severe acute malnutrition and require lifesaving treatment this year. At the same time, access to safe water is dwindling, with some areas in Burkina Faso experiencing a decrease of up to 40 per cent.
Last year, less than half of the money required to meet humanitarian needs was received and UNICEF has appealed for $208 million to support operations on the ground for protection, education, health, nutrition, and water and sanitation.
“If we do not strive to improve the region’s humanitarian situation and boost its development, the consequences will be grave and more people will be forced from their homes. Many of these areas are already fertile breeding grounds for radicalisation and extremism,” Patrick Youssef, ICRC deputy regional director for Africa, said in a statement.