UN warns Burkina Faso could become 'another Syria' as violence soars

Children bear the brunt as extremism and climate crisis drive almost 500,000 people from their homes

The UN food agency has warned of an “escalating humanitarian crisis” in Burkina Faso, driven by growing extremist violence and the long-term impact of climate crisis in the arid central Sahel region.

A sharp increase in attacks, the result of the west African country becoming embroiled in the jihadist insurgency that began in the region in early 2015, has forced almost half a million people from their homes.

Malnutrition is past emergency levels. One in five displaced children is malnourished, UN staff said.

“A dramatic human crisis is unfolding in Burkina Faso that has disrupted the lives of millions,” said the World Food Programme’s (WFP) executive director, David Beasley.

“Close to half a million people have been forced from their homes and a third of the country is now a conflict zone. Our teams on the ground are seeing malnutrition levels pushed well past emergency thresholds – this means young children and new mothers are on the brink. If the world is serious about saving lives, the time to act is now.”

The number of attacks in Burkina Faso in the first half of 2019 surpassed the total for 2018, with reported civilian deaths four times the total for last year. Schools have been forced to close and, in a country where four out of five people depend on farming for their livelihoods, people are abandoning their fields.

At least 486,000 people have fled their homes in Burkina Faso, bringing the total number of people displaced across the Sahel to 860,000. The WFP said 2.4 million people in the central Sahel area need food assistance. As communities take in displaced people, resources are further stretched.

Earlier this year, US military officials warned that the rapid and alarming deterioration of the security situation in Burkina Faso was threatening the destabilisation of a vast area of west Africa.

The WFP, which is assisting 2.6 million people in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, said it faced the “immense challenge” of providing immediate humanitarian needs, while protecting investments made in resilience and self-sufficiency. It needs an additional $150m (£116m) for operations in the three countries.

Marwa Awad, a WFP spokeswoman who was last week in Kaya, 90 minutes from the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, said the number of displaced people had “skyrocketed” in the past three months. Some families had walked 200km, she said.

“A lot of people running away from the violence in the north have moved southwards,” said Awad.

“We talked to people who painted gruesome accounts of people being shot at the market. They had walked for days and they arrive at displacement centres, where they wait all day to be registered and then wait for a host community to let them in.”

Awad said host communities in the south had been generous to those displaced.

Those who had fled the violence in the north, an area with much poverty, a lack of basic services, weak government and other problems, told Awad of armed groups exploiting economic inequalities to recruit young people.

“Mali is already in the grip of chaos and so that is why we are sounding the alarm on Burkina Faso,” she said.

“We don’t want another Syria. I covered Syria for three years and people were more well-versed in the layers of uprising and extremism. But people here have told us they are seeing the exploitation of inequality, with young people joining armed groups.”

Half of the country’s population are young, said Awad, who warned of an increase in human trafficking in the Sahel – a known smuggling route – were the situation allowed to continue.

Earlier this month, in the deadliest attack in recent years, at least 37 civilians were killed in an ambush on a convoy of workers for the Canadian gold mining company Semafo, in eastern Burkina Faso.

The military is struggling to contain Islamist violence that has overrun parts of the country. Attacks by militants have claimed 700 lives since early 2015. Many of the attacks have been attributed to groups affiliated with al-Qaida and Islamic State.

Contributor

Karen McVeigh

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘We might be next’: families flee as Burkina Faso tips into chaos
Schools targeted by extremist groups as half a million people are driven from their homes by violence and the climate crisis

Patricia Huon in Dori

18, Dec, 2019 @7:00 AM

Trees help combat hunger and malnutrition in Burkina Faso – video

The cultivation of trees that are resistant to drought and provide nutritional food throughout the year is a means of survival for many families in crisis in the Sahel

Angela Robson and Mike Goldwater

27, Jul, 2012 @10:43 AM

Article image
Mali refugees struggle to settle in Burkina Faso as food crisis deepens
Tuaregs fleeing conflict in Mali have put their own mark on Mentao camp but adapting to refugee life is least of problems

Afua Hirsch

12, Jul, 2012 @10:52 AM

Article image
Hundreds of thousands of children close to dying of hunger in Congo, UN warns
Unicef issues urgent appeal for funding to support 400,000 children at risk of death in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Kasai region

Karen McVeigh

11, May, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
How to donate: South Sudan famine and Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria food crises
Famine has been declared in parts of South Sudan, while Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria are also at risk. Here’s a roundup of some of the main appeals

Lucy Lamble, Ben Quinn, Karen McVeigh and Emmanuel Akinwotu

22, Feb, 2017 @12:38 PM

Article image
'It's a disaster': children bear brunt of southern Africa's devastating drought | Lucy Lamble
In southern Malawi and Zimbabwe, drought is overwhelming communities, forcing families to rely on meals of leaves and watermelon soup

Lucy Lamble in Harare and Lilongwe

21, Apr, 2016 @9:27 AM

Article image
Famine looms in four countries as aid system struggles to cope, experts warn
Campaigners say tens of millions in urgent need in Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia are in hands of an overwhelmed, outdated humanitarian network

Karen McVeigh and Ben Quinn

12, Feb, 2017 @10:38 AM

Article image
World’s poorest bear brunt of climate crisis: 10 underreported emergencies
Care International report highlights ‘deep injustice’ neglected by world’s media, as extreme weather along with Covid wipes out decades of progress

Saeed Kamali Dehghan

14, Jan, 2022 @6:15 AM

Burkina Faso feeling the impact of drought - video

Drought, rising prices and conflict have caused major food shortages in the Sahel. In Burkina Faso, the situation has been made worse by an influx of refugees fleeing conflict in neighbouring Mali

17, Feb, 2012 @10:54 AM

Article image
Famine threatens lives of nearly half a million Nigerian children, says Unicef
UN agency and other organisations warn that 14 million people need urgent aid, with food shortages in the north-east driven by Boko Haram insurgency

Emmanuel Akinwotu in Abuja

22, Feb, 2017 @7:00 AM