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In Mauritania, UNICEF and partners are providing critical assistance amid overlapping refugee and nutrition crises

VIDEO: Watch the UNICEF public service announcement urging donors to assist crisis-affected children in the Sahel region of Africa.  Watch in RealPlayer


By Ahmed Ould Sid’Ahmed Aida and Brahim Ould Isselmou

FASSALA, Mauritania, 27 March 2012 – For Nanni Oueled Faghi and her 2-year-old grandson, Habibi, the journey from their home in Léré, Mali, to the border town of Fassala, Mauritania, was long and dangerous. By the time they arrived in Mauritania, Habibi was suffering from diarrhoea and severe malnutrition.

Their family is one of many displaced by the recent fighting in northern Mali, where intensifying firefights have forced whole communities to flee. This refugee crisis overlaps with the nutritional crisis that is unfolding across the Sahel region of Africa – including much of southern Mauritania where the refugees from Mali are arriving.

The crises have prompted a two-way flow of people between Mali and Mauritania, with Malians escaping conflict in the north and Mauritanians moving south into Mali, hoping to find pasture for their weakened herds.

Amid uncertainty, life-saving actions

It was not until Ms. Faghi’s family arrived at Fassala, a temporary site for Malian refugees set up by the Government of Mauritania in coordination with the United Nations, that Habibi was able to receive treatment.

© UNICEF Mauritania/2012/Fassala
Lucia Elmi, UNICEF Representative in Mauritania, greets 2-year-old Habibi and his grandmother, Nanni Oueled Faghi, at the M’Béra Camp in Mauritania.

“When the village was attacked, we left at sunset with many families in an old truck, and we spent a horrible night battered by cold and fear,” Ms. Faghi said. “Twelve hours later we were standing in line at the registration centre in Fassala. Habibi was already weak with a bad cough and diarrhoea.”

The government, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), UNICEF and other partners responded rapidly to provide life-saving interventions, including water, hygiene and nutrition services.

Hibibi received therapeutic food, and his health and recovery were closely monitored. Counselling was also provided for his grandmother, who had anaemia and was experiencing the effects of extreme stress.

“Habibi could have passed away if he had not received appropriate and rapid interventions,” said Dr. Ahmed Ould Sid’Ahmed Aida, a UNICEF Nutrition Specialist. “When we first met Habibi, his condition was really worrying, but he started recovering well thanks to intensive care and treatment.”

Influx of refugees

For weeks, thousands of refugees have streamed across the border, requiring the establishment of the M’béra camp. Nearly 40,000 refugees, including Habibi and his grandmother, have now been transferred from Fassala to M’béra.

© UNICEF Mauritania/2012/Fassala
Water is distributed in Fassala, Mauritania.

UNICEF is delivering a comprehensive and integrated response including water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), health, nutrition and communications for development (C4D) interventions. Still, transporting critical supplies to the camps from the capital, Nouakchott, takes three days and involves crossing 1,500 km of desert, often without roads; it is a difficult and time-consuming journey.

Mauritania has limited resources to address this multifaceted crisis. It is struggling to assist the refugees and its own communities – including host communities for the refugee camps – which have been hard-hit by drought and food insecurity.

Two crises, one resolve

UNICEF and its partners are working to ensure a coordinated response to both emergencies, aiming to prevent further deterioration of the current situation and to build community resilience to potential future crises.

“Habibi is the personification of the work of UNICEF and our humanitarian mandate. What is driving us is saving lives,” said Lucia Elmi, UNICEF Representative in Mauritania, who visited the camps to oversee the response and mobilize support.

UNICEF is stepping up its interventions to address both crises, but more resource and partnerships are needed to build on these initial interventions. With additional funding, UNICEF and its partners will help thousands of children in the camps and host communities gain access to essential services – and hope for a better future.



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