Thousands Flee Their Homes In Sahel And Lake Chad After Military Crackdown On Armed Groups

On 23 April, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) revealed that thousands of civilians in West Africa’s Sahel and Lake Chad regions have fled their homes following a surge in military activity in the area. At the end of March, security forces from Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon launched a military crackdown on armed groups responsible for attacks on civilians and those countries’ military forces. Tens of thousands of civilians, many of them children, have been displaced by the recent upsurge in violence. 

In a statement on Thursday, UNHCR reminded governments of their international obligations to uphold pledges to protect civilians during any counter-terrorism operations. Aissatou Ndiaye, Deputy Director for UNHCR’s Bureau for West and Central Africa urged that protecting the displaced population ‘must be a priority for all sides involved in this conflict’. Back in January, UNICEF warned that close to 5 million children in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger will need humanitarian assistance over the course of 2020. Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa, described the scale of violence that children are facing in Central Sahel. ‘They are being killed, mutilated and sexually abused, and hundreds of thousands of them have had traumatic experiences’, Ms Poirier said.  

Violence has swept across the Sahel region since January 2020, but the area as seen periods of unrest for many years, with climate change and food insecurity partly fueling the conflict. According to UNHRC, nearly 50,000 people, including thousands of women, children and the elderly, have already been displaced in the region this year. Attacks against children have spiked over the past year; since the start of 2019, more than 670,000 children across the region have been forced to flee their homes because of armed conflict and insecurity.  

Following the recent military activity, there have been calls for renewed urgency to protect the thousands of children that have been displaced and no longer have access to education. According to Al Jazeera, children who are not attending school are at a higher risk of being recruited by armed groups. Additionally, girls who are out of education are particularly vulnerable to being forced into marriage. International aid organizations and local education authorities are working to implement alternative education methods, but the report indicates that a lack of international funding has limited these efforts. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic adding another threat to a region already dealing with one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, the pressure is mounting on Western governments to intervene. However, as France’s military intervention in the region continues to receive criticism for escalating the violence, it is clear that a more cautious approach is necessary to avoid exacerbating the situation. Solving the crisis will not be simple, but the West can no longer turn a blind eye to the atrocities that are being committed in the Sahel and surrounding areas. Immediate humanitarian action is needed, otherwise, children will continue to pay the price of a conflict that is already destroying their communities and threatening their futures.