UN: Violence, COVID-19 contribute to rising humanitarian needs in Sahel

Two displaced women sit at a camp in Awaradi, Niger

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 17 (NNN-Xinhua) — A surge in armed violence, coupled with the economic and social fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, are contributing to worsening conditions for children in the Central Sahel, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported on Friday.

The agency said that a record 7.2 million children in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger now require humanitarian assistance – a staggering two-thirds jump in just a year.

“Over a million children have been forcibly displaced from their homes,” said UNICEF spokesperson Marixie Mercado, speaking from Geneva.

“Safe water – so critical for the survival of young children and for preventing COVID-19 – is scarcer than ever, particularly so among those displaced,” Mercado said.

Conditions are especially acute in some regions of Burkina Faso that are hosting large numbers of displaced people. Education is also under fire, affecting young lives in several ways.

Targeted attacks had already shut down more than 4,000 schools across the three countries prior to COVID-19, and the pandemic has shuttered the rest.

The Central Sahel is one of the world’s poorest regions and the overall humanitarian situation there has deteriorated sharply over the past two years.

The UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA, said more than 13 million people require assistance, and as the UNICEF figures show, more than half are children.

The number of people facing acute hunger levels has tripled over the past year, reaching 7.4 million, while the 1.5 million people now internally displaced represent a twenty-fold increase in two years.

Meanwhile, lockdowns and other measures to prevent COVID-19 have pushed an additional 6 million people into extreme poverty. Women and girls are especially vulnerable, and gender-based violence is also on the rise.

OCHA warned that needs are rising faster than funding can keep up.

In addition, the World Food Programme said Friday that its total funding requirement for its operations across the Central Sahel now stands at around 170 million U.S. dollars to provide critical support over the next six months.

Around 86 million dollars is needed for Burkina Faso, 21 million dollars in Mali, and 63 million dollars in Niger.

“People living in the border region between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are now at an epicenter of conflict, poverty, and climate change. Without support, we fear that the region could develop into one of the biggest crises in the world,” agency spokesperson Jens Laerke said.

Amid these obstacles, the United Nations and partners continue to serve people in need.

For example, UNICEF and partners have worked to reach children with life-saving therapeutic food, immunization against deadly diseases, and access to safe water and sanitation.

Children who were released from armed groups, or who were subjected to sexual violence, are also receiving support to recover and reintegrate into their communities.

However, Mercado said UNICEF operations are “critically underfunded.”

The Central Sahel will be the focus of international attention next week.

The United Nations, together with Denmark, Germany and the European Union, will host a ministerial conference on the region on Tuesday. The main objectives include instilling what OCHA has called “a much more acute sense of emergency” about the situation, as well as raising funds to support humanitarian action. — NNN-XINHUA