Tuareg Refugees in Burkina Faso

Stephen Davies, 2008

More than 1500 Malian refugees have entered Burkina Faso, fleeing the Tuareg rebellion, army attacks and civilian reprisals in Mali. Many more have fled to Mauritania, Niger and Algeria.

Here in ______ yesterday we heard of truck after truckload of Tuareg women and children arriving in town and being registered at the gendarmerie, before being taken on to Mohammed’s settlement in ______. There are already more than 600 people there. Déjà vu? Yes, this has happened before. This is the third time that Tuareg families have sought refuge in the north of Burkina Faso. It happened most recently in 2008.

This time it is worse, and much more politically sensitive as well. The Movement for the Liberation of Azawad is no longer a disorganized rabble of Tuareg men with Kalashnikovs, it is now a well-funded militia with a huge arsenal of Gaddafi’s heavy weapons (smuggled into Mali by Tuareg fighters returning from Libya). They pose a serious threat to Mali.

The French army is here as well. My friend Hama told me yesterday that a truckload of French soldiers zoomed past him yesterday on the road between _____ and ______. He was pleased because one of them had given him a thumbs-up sign in passing. He believes that the French soldiers are here because they are helping the Burkinabe army to vet the refugees and make sure there are no arms coming into Burkina Faso. No arms, please, and definitely no AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb) fighters.

Is there a link between the Tuareg rebels and Al Qaeda? The Mali government is keen to say yes, the Tuareg rebels are keen to say no. The truth is probably somewhere in between, i.e. that the Tuareg interaction with AQIM is economic rather than ideological – the best analysis I have read yet is from the Stratfor Global Intelligence website: From African Nomads to Smugglers and Mercenaries.

Can Al Qaeda take advantage of this situation to establish a presence in Burkina Faso? Hama is no security expert, but he thinks not. If AQIM try anything here in Burkina, he mutters darkly, they will soon regret it.

What are we going to do in response to the unfolding refugee crisis in our back yard? Well, it’s tricky. Here are some factors we must take into consideration:

  • Everyone keeps telling us how politically sensitive this situation is. The husbands and fathers of some of these refugees are Tuareg rebels using Gaddafi’s munitions to destabilize Mali.
  • The harvest in Burkina Faso was bad for everyone this year – our friends and neighbours are already struggling to make ends meet. Many people’s millet has already run out and they are being forced to borrow money or sell animals to survive.
  • We can not ignore the 600 women and children in _____. And nor can larger aid agencies. I know it’s political and all, but in 2008 we and SIM were the only ones helping the refugees. Action Sociale and the UNHDR came to ______ brandishing their clipboards and pens and they went away again. As Mohammed commented drily at the time, refugees can’t eat clipboards.

We will continue to assess the situation, and try to find out if any of the larger aid agencies are going to get involved this time. In the meantime, if you would like to donate towards short term aid (food/blankets) for the refugees, please contact me.