Launch of UNICEF Child Alert - Ten million children in the central Sahel need humanitarian assistance amid spiralling conflict and punishing climate

This is a summary of what was said by UNICEF spokesperson John James – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. 

17 March 2023

As prepared for delivery

"Good morning.

"I’ve come in from UNICEF’s regional office in West and Central Africa to warn about a rapidly accelerating crisis for children on Europe’s doorstep.

"Ten million children in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are in dire need of humanitarian assistance largely due to spiralling conflict, while nearly 4 million children are at risk in neighbouring countries as hostilities between armed groups and national security forces spill across borders.

"Today UNICEF is publishing a new Child Alert warning of the extreme jeopardy facing the lives and futures of children in the central Sahel.

"To those who think this is a long-running chronic crisis, we want to be very clear that while attention has been elsewhere, things have been accelerating downhill at an alarming pace.

"It may be a conflict without clear boundaries and headline-grabbing battles, but slowly and surely it has been spreading, and children – millions of them - are increasingly in the middle of it.

"When I say the situation has been getting much worse, let me point to a few figures highlighted in the report. I said 10 million children in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are in need of humanitarian assistance – that is twice as many as in 2020.

"Last year was particularly violent for children. Many of you will be familiar with the UN’s reporting and verification work on grave violations against children in conflict.

"In Burkina Faso, three times more children were verified as killed during the first nine months of 2022 than in the same period in 2021, according to UN-verified data.

"Over 8,300 schools have shut down across the three countries because they were directly targeted, teachers have fled, or because parents were displaced or too frightened to send their children to school.

"More than 1 in 5 schools in Burkina Faso have closed. 30 per cent of schools in Niger’s Tillaberi region are no longer functional due to the conflict.

"Over 20,000 people in the border area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger will be in ‘catastrophe’-level food insecurity by June 2023, according to recent projections.

"The armed conflict has become increasingly brutal. Some of the armed groups that operate across vast swathes of Mali, Burkina Faso, and increasingly in Niger employ tactics that include blockading towns and villages and sabotaging water networks.

"58 water points were attacked in Burkina Faso in 2022, up from 21 in 2021 and 3 in 2020. UNICEF-supported water trucks have been burned, and water storage facilities destroyed.

"The armed conflict has driven nearly 2.7 million people off their land into displacement camps or vulnerable host communities across the three countries.

"Today we are also highlighting the spillover contamination into the northern areas of neighbouring coastal countries. At least 172 violent incidents, including attacks by armed groups, were reported in the northern border areas of Togo, Benin, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire in 2022. In both Benin and Togo, nine schools in the countries’ northern regions had shut down or were no longer functional due to insecurity by late 2022.

"Their situation is clearly not the same as in the central Sahel where large areas of countries lack government services, and humanitarian actors struggle to reach communities. But insecurity is growing in these coastal countries, linked to similar activities by non-state armed groups.

"Now is the time to anticipate, build resilience and social cohesion, and avoid taking any actions that risk exacerbating the situation.

"There is growing discussion of a military response – we are saying, let’s invest in humanitarian support and long-term investment in development.

"What’s behind these terrible trends? Many things but let me highlight a few.

  1. Climate change: temperatures in the Sahel are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average. Rainfall is more erratic and intense, causing floods that reduce crop yields and contaminate scarce water supplies
  2. High food prices linked to global conflicts and COVID-19
  3. Chronic underfunding of humanitarian and development work
  4. A need for greater national commitment to investing in essential services for children and protection.

"What can be done? The scale of the crisis in the central Sahel and, increasingly, in neighbouring coastal countries urgently requires a stronger humanitarian response as well as long-term flexible investment in resilient essential social services.

"We need to be - and are - working to strengthen communities, working with and through local organisations and mobile solutions for hard-to-reach areas.

"We need to work even more with the amazing adolescents and young people in the region, and take advantage of the incredible potential that’s there, including for solar energy.

"In the central Sahel, UNICEF has nearly 600 staff across 15 different offices, but our access and ability to reach people is increasingly under threat, even as we adapt to find new solutions to deliver support.

"Finally, UNICEF is also urging all parties to the conflict to fulfil their fundamental moral and legal obligations toward children under international humanitarian and human rights law.

"This includes ending attacks on children and the services they rely on; respecting humanitarian space and access; implementing specific protocols on the treatment of children affected by the armed conflict; and engaging systematically with the United Nations on concrete action plans to end grave violations against children.

"I’ve given a lot of numbers, but there are incredible human stories in this report and in the powerful accompanying multimedia stories, like the one from Abasse who speaks about suddenly fleeing from Burkina Faso due to conflict and travelling to Benin with his family on foot.

"These brave children need the world’s support."


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