Ten million children in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are in dire need of humanitarian assistance – twice as many as in 2020 – largely due to spiraling conflict in the Central Sahel region, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned in an analysis released Friday. According to the UNICEF Child Alert, nearly 4 million children are at risk in neighboring countries as hostilities between armed groups and national security forces spill across borders.
The analysis 'Extreme Jeopardy' looks at how children are increasingly caught up in the armed conflict, as victims of intensifying military clashes, or targeted by non-state armed groups. Some of the armed groups that operate across vast swathes of these three countries employ tactics that include blockading towns and villages and sabotaging water networks.
The Sahel has long been one of the most vulnerable regions in Africa. But armed conflict and intensifying military clashes are putting lives and livelihoods at risk, disrupting access to basic services and leaving the futures of the central Sahel’s children in “extreme jeopardy”.
The UN agency says children are being directly targeted by non-state armed groups who operate across vast swathes of Mali and Burkina Faso, and increasingly in Niger. Hundreds of children have been abducted across the three countries, many of them girls. While attention is elsewhere, the situation in the region is worsening at an alarming pace.
According to the report, since 2021, non-state armed groups have destroyed food reserves in a region that is among the hungriest and most malnourished on the planet. Some armed groups that oppose state-administered education burn and loot schools, and threaten, abduct or kill teachers.
National security operations against armed groups, meanwhile, have resulted in multiple instances of children being killed, injured and arrested, the UN agency said. Many schools and hospitals are being damaged or destroyed across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. More than 8,300 schools in the three countries are now closed due to the violence and insecurity. In Burkina Faso, almost a quarter of all schools are now closed; in Niger, that number is close to a third.
UNICEF warns that insecurity and displacement are spilling over central Sahel borders and unfolding in remote communities with scarce infrastructure and resources, where children already have very limited access to the services they depend on for survival and protection. All this is happening in one of the most climate-affected and water-scarce regions in the world.
“The scale of the crisis in the central Sahel and increasingly spilling over into West Africa’s coastal countries urgently requires a stronger humanitarian response. But it also needs long-term flexible investment for sustainable development that contributes to peacebuilding within communities, especially for children. Far more investment in expanding access to essential services and social protection is needed to address the underlying causes of conflict and insecurity”, the report said.
“Tackling underlying causes, strengthening social services, and anticipating crises, can help countries build resilient societies with strong social cohesion that allow children to enjoy their rights and realize their potential.”
UNICEF urges all parties to the conflict to fulfil their fundamental moral and legal obligations toward children under international humanitarian and human rights law, which included ending attacks on children and the services they relied on.
The Sahel region is facing on of the fastest-growing humanitarian crises in the world. And at the same time, it is one of the most forgotten. Armed conflict, deteriorating security, political instability, and widespread poverty are the main drivers of unprecedented humanitarian needs, particularly in the central Sahel region, which includes the countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. This deteriorating humanitarian emergency is further compounded by global food insecurity and the impact of the climate crisis.
UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, is the agency of the United Nations responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children worldwide. Created in 1946 as the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, UNICEF is today one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the world. UNICEF works in over 190 countries and territories to protect children’s rights.
Full text: Extreme Jeopardy. Ten million children in the central Sahel need humanitarian assistance amid spiralling conflict and punishing climate, UNICEF Child Alert, released March 17, 2023