Mali: Refugees in vulnerable situation

© Aurelie Baumel/MSF

A political crisis has divided Mali since the end of January. People are leaving the regions in the north of Mali. Refugees and displaced people have been hiding in bushes or fleeing to Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania. They often settle in places where people are already living. These places are already weakened by food insecurity in the region. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is responding to the growing humanitarian need in the region, providing assistance to refugees as well as to local people.

Fear of being caught in the cross-fire, insecurity and a major food crisis have driven more than 300,000 Malians to flee the country for neighboring nations. “Many are terrified and ready to leave everything behind to escape violence,” says Marie-Christine Férir, MSF emergency coordinator.

The refugees, coming mostly from Timbuktu, Gao, Ségou and Mopti, are taking refuge in communities and camps where there is only very limited supply of water, shelter and food. 

Providing basic healthcare 

In order to respond to the needs of vulnerable people, MSF is supporting health centres in Burkina Faso (Gandafabou, Férrerio), Mauritania (Fassala, Mbéra, Bassikounou), and in Niger (Chinagodar, Bani Bangou, Yassan). Every week, MSF’s mobile clinics treat people in the camps in Burkina Faso (Dibissi, Ngatoutou-Niénié, Déou) and in Niger (Ayorou, Maigaïzé, Bani Bangou, Abala, Gaoudel, Nbeidou). Since February, MSF medical teams carried out more than 23,000 consultations in the border regions of Mali. “We see many cases of respiratory infections, malaria, and diarrhoea. These problems are often due to the very bad conditions that the refugees are living in.” says Férir. MSF teams are also treating a large number of women in need of obstetric care. Around a hundred women have given birth in the MSF health post in the Mbera camp in Mauritania.

Water, a rare and precious commodity

Refugees do not have sufficient access to potable water. This is especially the case in the desert areas of Mauritania. Water is essential to avoid diseases and other hygiene-related health problems. In Bani Bangou camp, MSF makes sure that 200 m3 of chlorinated water is available each week. “With temperatures around 50 degrees, we have to make sure that the refugees and especially the young children and the elderly get enough to drink,” says Férir. Migration like this is problematic for the region, given that it already suffers from drought and food insecurity. 

Treating and preventing malnutrition

The refugees depend solely on humanitarian aid for essential supplies like food. Still, there is not enough milk nor appropriate food for mothers to feed their children. "Rice can relieve hunger but can not replace the nutrients children need. Elements such as proteins, fats, vitamins, carbohydrates and minerals are essential for the growth and development of a child." says Férir. In Mauritania, refugees told MSF that they fled Mali because of the lack of food. Since the beginning of the emergency response, MSF has treated almost 1,000 severely malnourished children in the three countries.

Facing epidemics

Protecting children from measles is another health priority in the camps where MSF is working. In these places, where people live in disorder and children suffer from chronic malnutrition, a measles epidemic could be devastating. MSF has vaccinated more than 10,000 children since March with the support of the health authorities. Cholera cases have been documented in Namarigoungou and Bonfeba in Niger. MSF and the Ministry of Health have treated some 600 cholera patients since the beginning of May. Another MSF team is setting up two 60-bed cholera treatment centres. 

The vulnerability of the refugees’ situation and the coming rainy season will increase the risk of epidemics like malaria and cholera. On top of that, the “hunger gap” that begins in the month of July always sees an increase in malnutrition cases. The refugees will have to face the double burden of malnutrition and malaria.


In the Sikasso region of Mali, MSF teams are also running pædiatric and nutrition activities in five health centres and the Koutiala hospital. In addition to curative activities, MSF is working on the prevention of major childhood diseases. In the north, MSF is working in a Timbuktu hospital and provides care in villages in the Timbuktu, Kidal and Mopti regions.