“We have wandered enough, suffered enough, we are finally going to settle here and prepare the future of our children,” like Hama Dawa, thousands of Malian refugees in Niger are trying to integrate into local communities, as they are unable to return to their country, which is still hit by jihadist attacks.
“Returning to Mali is not on the agenda. For the moment we are building our future here: we are well assisted and there is security,” Mahamadou Seguid, a spokesman for these Malian refugees who have been resettled on a site in Ouallam, about 100 km north of Niamey, told AFP.
Nearly 6,000 live there. At first light, many of them have already gone to the market to sell animals and handicrafts, others are workers in a local brick factory.
At the entrance to the site, barefoot and bare-chested children line up in front of a couscous seller, while school-children with school bags on their backs head for school.
More than 61,000 Malians are in Niger after fleeing northern Mali ten years ago under the control of jihadist groups.
With the persistence of jihadist attacks, including those of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) group, it is impossible for them to return.
“We are following developments in Mali with some concern and we hope they will become more positive because without peace there will be no return of refugees,” Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who recently visited Ouallam, told AFP.
“With the deterioration of security in the tri-border area (Niger, Mali, Burkina), the conditions for their return to the country are obviously not met,” agrees Laouan Magagi, Niger’s Minister for Humanitarian Action.
Resigned, the refugees are trying to integrate into Ouallam, a small town of 15,000 inhabitants, through “common spaces” set up by the UNHCR: shops, health centres and schools.
“Going back to Mali? My children were born in Niger, one goes to school, their future is here,” said Agaïchatou, a young mother from Ménaka (north-east Mali), while pounding millet with her baby on her back.
– Positive coexistence” –
Some refugees have received sheep and goats to “reconstitute a herd” and “get milk”, says Ousseïni Hassane, another refugee.
Over the past three years, the shantytown-like site has become a real neighborhood: small ochre brick houses are gradually replacing the makeshift shelters and tarpaulins regularly destroyed by sandstorms and floods.
There is a school, a fountain connected to the city’s drinking water network, solar-powered street lamps, a children’s playground and green space.
More than 400 families have already been relocated to houses where they live with local people. Some 600 other houses will soon be built, the UNHCR promises.
This “extraordinary project aims to ensure positive coexistence between locals and refugees,” hopes Filippo Grandi.
Of the 600 pupils in the newly built school, “40%” are refugee children, he says. Recently, a garden was created where refugees and Nigeriens grow fruit and vegetables together.
With 464 farmers – 404 of them women – assisted by agronomists, the five-hectare garden is equipped with a drip irrigation system and soil moisture sensors.
“I could finally earn my own money after selling some of my produce,” smiles Madinat, a refugee, watering can in hand.
According to the UN, Niger – one of the poorest countries in the world – is home to more than 266,400 Nigerian and Malian refugees, plus more than 13,000 Burkinabè fleeing the atrocities of the jihadists.
However, Niger is also a victim of the atrocities of jihadist groups: their deadly incursions in the west and south-east have displaced 264,257 people within the territory since 2015.
This human flow is a “burden for local communities”, warns Filippo Grandi, who pleads for more “international financial aid to Niger”.