Burkina Faso and Mali brace for migrants escaping Ivorian conflict | Liz Ford

Foreign workers flee Ivory Coast as they become targets for violent groups. Mali and Burkina Faso, two of the world's poorest countries, are expecting up to 50,000

The governments of Burkina Faso and Mali are gearing up for the return of thousands of people fleeing the violence and the tense political situation in the Ivory Coast.

Three million people from Burkina Faso and 2 million from Mali work in Ivory Coast. Both countries are already receiving returnees and refugees, as foreigners are being targeted for violent attacks by supporters of Laurent Gbagbo, the former Ivorian president who was arrested last week.

During Ivory Coast's 2002-03 civil war, more than 200,000 returned to Burkina Faso and Mali, and some of them never went back to Ivory Coast – unable to reposess their property or concerned about potential unrest.

Christian Aid says that between 40,000 and 50,000 could cross those borders over the next few weeks, putting pressure on already tight resources. Of the 169 countries listed in the 2010 Human Development Index, Burkina Faso and Mali were ranked at 161 and 160 respectively.

"A majority of the people fleeing Ivory Coast are foreigners who are migrant workers, some of them for generations, as they have been specifically targeted for violence and abuse," said Cristina Ruiz, Christian Aid's west Africa regional emergency manager. "These people are now living with relatives and acquaintances in their country of origin."

Government ministers in the two countries are understood to be drawing up plans with the UN and NGOs to cope with the expected influx.

The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported last week that 404 people had registered as refugees in Mali and 70 in Burkina Faso. However, exact figures are hard to gauge: many people cross the border and head straight to relatives' homes.

Ruiz said that the immediate assistance of refugees and returnees, was the main focus of humanitarian operation, but longer-term plans, particularly in Mali, are being considered, including income-generation activities and microfinance projects.

Niger is also receiving huge numbers of returnees from Ivory Coast. According to OCHA, by last week 5,523 people had entered. A further 50,000 Nigerois are still in Ivory Coast, but 21,500 are fleeing from Libya, and another 30,000 are waiting to get out of the north African state.

Since violence broke out in Ivory Coast, following last November's presidential election, more than 150,000 refugees have left – the majority to Liberia, and 8,500 to Ghana – and a further million have left their homes. Now that the battle for the biggest city, Abidjan, has diminished, many more people may feel safe enough to leave their homes and cross the borders.

Aid agencies warn that the humanitarian crisis in the region is likely to continue for months and have called for more funding, according to AllAfrica.com.

Oxfam's regional humanitarian coordinator in Ivory Coast, Philippe Conraud, said the organisation was preparing for a "long-term humanitarian emergency and potential public health disaster … The fallout of the past four months will be felt for a long time to come. Refugees need lifesaving aid immediately and support to help rebuild their lives over the coming months."

The UN says $160m is needed for Ivory Coast but, so far, only $22m has been committed by the international community. For Liberia, the UN needs $146.5m, just over a quarter has been pledged.

The European Commission is expected to announce this week a substantial increase in aid to Ivory Coast and neighbouring states. The EU is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to the country: from its initial pledge of €55m, €30m is being used to support the UN, Red Cross and other NGOs.

Last week, the European commissioner for development, Andris Piebalgs, announced that Ivory Coast's debts from projects funded by the European Investment Bank, including a new airport, would be written off.


Liz Ford

The GuardianTramp

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