The U.N. refugee agency says it expects another 700,000 people will be uprooted by the conflict in Mali in the coming months. The UNHCR says this number includes hundreds of thousands of people inside Mali who were forced out of their homes, and additional hundreds of thousands who fled the country and are now refugees.
The 700,000 uprooted Malians are in addition to nearly 375,000 people already displaced inside Mali and in neighboring countries. The U.N. refugee agency says refugee numbers have been rising steadily since the fighting began between French forces and Islamist militants in the central part of the country.
UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming says people are fleeing the fighting and the region occupied by the Islamists at a rate of about 3,000 a day. She says the refugees are giving horrific accounts of living under the rule of rebel Islamic fighters.
“Many also fear the strict application of Sharia law. They report having witnessed executions, amputations and they say that also large amounts of money are being offered to civilians to fight against the Malian army and its supporters," she said. "Disturbingly also, we are hearing accounts that there are children among the rebel fighters. They are certainly not there willingly. Also, people are very distressed and saying that family members have just disappeared.”
Fleming says there are those who take advantage of desperate people in every situation of crisis. And, Mali is no exception.
She says refugees are telling aid workers that people are offering transport out of the country at exorbitant fees and this is discouraging many more people from leaving.
“They say that they have to pay the equivalent of $50.00 to get out. For many, that is equivalent to more than a month’s earnings," Fleming noted. "Most are women and children and others, they say are on their way by foot, using donkeys, local transportation… All of them say that they hope that this military intervention will be successful, short-lived and some people for that reason are waiting before they make the decision to flee across borders.”
France launched its military operation in northern Mali a week ago after a rapid advance by Islamist rebels. French authorities say they also want to stop their former colony from becoming a terrorist state.
Meanwhile, the French defense minister says his country has increased the number of troops in Mali from 800 to 1,400. Troops from other West African nations have begun arriving in Mali to bolster the French offensive.
The UNHCR says it is urgently reinforcing its staff and resources for Mali to assist the growing numbers of internally displaced and refugees.