May 19, 2024
Niger spiraling into ‘protection crisis’ following takeover: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
– By Godswill Odiong

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The political crisis in Niger has created uncertainty for scores of vulnerable displaced people, with restrictions on humanitarian operations limiting aid and protection, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Tuesday.

UNHCR’s representative in Niger, Emmanuel Gignac, said that sanctions imposed on the country by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) following last month’s military takeover do not include any exemptions for humanitarian aid.

Mr. Gignac observed that food and commodity prices, already climbing before this crisis, jumped after sanctions were introduced. If humanitarians are unable to bring in food and medical assistance, the effects may be “catastrophic”, he warned.

Moreover, the security situation, fuel shortages and disruptions to the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) have seriously impacted aid workers’ mobility, keeping them from reaching those most in need.

Mr. Gignac also voiced concern for the impact of the sanctions on electricity supply “we are almost constantly on generators, and consuming a lot of fuel” he said, indicating the inevitable impact on fuel supply in months to come.

Increased violence

The ongoing political crisis, with no clear solution in sight, is generating uncertainty and concern as Niger continues to experience repeated attacks by non-State armed groups, especially near the Mali and Burkina Faso borders, said UNHCR.

Recent violence has led to an extra 20,000 newly displaced in the last month according to Mr. Gignac, who noted that an increase in security incidents over the past few weeks has heightened protection risks for refugees, asylum-seekers and their hosts.

For example, in July UNHCR monitored 255 protection incidents including kidnapping, gender-based violence and domestic violence.

Witnessing a sharp increase since the military takeover, between 26 and 31 July, the agency recorded a 50 per cent increase in similar incidents compared with earlier in the month.

Mr. Gignac said that the crisis also coincides with the lean season, an infamously “fragile period” marking the transition between agricultural season – as flooding continues to affect thousands since July.

“We have an atmosphere of uncertainty,” he said, recalling his time in Niamey, Niger.

Refugee movement and sanctions

According to UNHCR there are some 700,000 forcibly displaced people in the country. Half of them internal, while the other half are refugees and asylum seekers mainly from Mali and Burkina Faso.

Referencing the recent update to UNHCR’s contingency planning, Mr. Gigrac warned that the current humanitarian response couldn’t address any new shocks, such as the sudden movement of tens of thousands of new refugees, and any resulting humanitarian needs.

UNHCR has therefore called on States to consider a sanction exemption mechanism, particularly amidst restrictions on movement and rising food and commodity prices.

Mr. Gignac stressed that UNHCR’s stocks of essential items, catering for about 5,000 families, are only expected to last for three to five months.

He also expressed concern over access to medicine and healthcare, urging the continuation of health services, traditionally provided by the government, despite the sanctions.

Humanitarian concerns

According to the UN, ongoing political instability aggravated by the military intervention, is likely to exacerbate already large and complex humanitarian needs in Niger where over 4.3 million people require humanitarian assistance this year alone.

Last week, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) warned that millions there could fall further into severe food insecurity due to the impact of sanctions, as 3.3 million currently face severe food insecurity.

Another 7.3 million, who were already facing moderate food insecurity prior to the crisis, are now at risk of falling deeper into hunger.

UNHCR’s $135.7 million appeal for Niger however, remains only 39 per cent funded.

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