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Importing the Malian conflict to the Group of Five Sahel countries: The case of the Ayorou refugee camp in Niger

Mangaizé refugee camp in Niger, 19 February 2013. Source: Boubacar Soumaré/Oxfam.
Mangaizé refugee camp in Niger, 19 February 2013. Source: Boubacar Soumaré/Oxfam.

Since the fall of the Libyan regime in 2011, multiple and multifaceted crises in the Sahel region have greatly destabilized the local states and weakened already vulnerable populations. Located at the crossroads of three crises axes (Libya–Mali axis, Liptako–Gourma region, Lake Chad basin), Niger is particularly affected by regional instability. The country, particularly the Agadez region, has long served as a major transit hub for sub-Saharan migrants (between 80 000 and 150 000 people per year up until 2015). Niger also hosts the largest number of Malian refugees (58 051 according to the December 2019 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) data), especially from the northern Malian regions of Gao and Timbuktu. This flow of refugees is easily explained by the geographical proximity with Niger and long-standing family, ethnic and economic ties between local communities on both sides of the border. Three main refugee camps were created between March and May 2012 in the country: Tabarey-Barey, Mangaizé and Ayorou in the border region of Tillabéri in northwest Niger.

Together with older structural fragilities, the current regional upheavals could have serious and lasting consequences for the country's stability in the medium term. This SIPRI Topical Backgrounder is part of a series of publications by the SIPRI Sahel and West Africa Programme on the effects of the Malian crisis on other Group of Five (G5) Sahel countries, namely Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. It is based on existing academic work and field research undertaken in Ayorou, in the Tillabéri region, between July and August 2019 by SIPRI’s partner in the country (Laboratoire d'Etudes et de Recherche sur les Dynamiques Sociales et le Développement Local (LASDEL)) and a field report entitled ‘La “crise malienne”: Perspectives à partir d’une ville frontalière nigérienne’, derived from this research. This SIPRI Topical Backgrounder aims at exploring the refugees’ living conditions and the effects of the refugees’ presence on local communities and dynamics in peripheral regions.


Tillabéri: A buffer and peripheral region between two fragile countries

Located 4 kilometres from the commune of Watugouna in eastern Mali, the rural and sparsely populated region of Tillabéri in Niger (less than 30 inhabitants per km2) has old ties with Mali and has hosted populations from this country on several occasions, well before the 2012 crisis. This was particularly the case with the severe droughts of 1973–74 and the famine in 1984. On each occasion, the region hosted a high number of refugees, mainly fishermen, who chose to settle and have been living there ever since. In the bordering Nigerien town of Ayorou, entire neighbourhoods are inhabited by Malian communities.

With the outbreak of the crisis in January 2012, the region was a natural destination for people from northern Mali. From 2012 until 2015, 50 000 refugees from Mali settled in the region and it is estimated that there are around 35 000 today. In the Tillabéri camps, such as the Tabarey-Barey camp, findings indicate that nearly 10 000 Malians from the two regions of Gao and Ménaka have found refuge. Outside the camps, an estimated 5 000 more are living in urban areas, such as Ayorou and Niamey, where they have mingled with Nigerien internally displaced persons (IDPs) from surrounding villages.

At the centre of economic and human exchanges, the border has played an important role since the outbreak of the Malian crisis. Despite a curfew imposed by Niger authorities, Malian refugees and other groups continue to travel back and forth. One consequence of these movements is that the Nigerien security forces struggle to differentiate refugees from combatants and to deal with illicit trafficking (e.g. arms) that feeds insecurity both inside and outside the camps.


Organization of the refugee camp: Spatial division and reproduction of inequalities

Inside the camps, research indicates that a spatial organization divides the refugees into several districts based on their place of origin. Each district is led by a chief chosen among the refugees and by the refugees themselves following a model which, most of the time, reproduces ethnic lineages. In the Tillabéri camps, Tuareg communities represent 85 per cent of the Malian refugees, followed by Songhoy, Peuhl, Arab, Bambara, Hausa and Bellas.

Refugees’ lives revolve around these districts and also around the specialized committees they have to take part in, each fulfilling specific tasks and functions (hygiene, security vigilance, awareness and communication for cohabitation, etc.). Some of these committees also coexist with formal structures, also present in the camp. This is the case, for example, of the vigilance committee, which works with the gendarmerie and military posts in charge of registering refugees on arrivals and helping to settle tensions and conflicts that may arise in the camp.

However, in Ayorou, recurring attacks against the military have weakened this organization. Research indicates that Ayorou communities have accused people from inside the refugee camps of being responsible for these attacks. These rumours have contributed to undermining the established trust and relations between refugees and local groups.


The refugee camp: Between protection and vulnerability

Findings have shown that cohabitation of distinct ethnic groups inside the refugee camps has also contributed to exacerbating old tensions between communities. This is particularly the case among the highly hierarchical ones, mainly the Tuareg, who simply transposed the strict social pre-existing norms that regulated relationships with other groups into the camps. Although the Bellas or Ikelan form a numerical majority, they continue to suffer the domination of other alleged ‘superior’ ethnic groups, noble Tuareg clans, inside the camps.

In addition to their ethnic affiliation, Malian refugees in Ayorou were also part of a social and political milieu and, in some cases, played a role in the local dynamics of conflict in Mali. According to the social scientist Mariame Sidibe who investigated in Tillabéri in 2015, Malian refugees are composed of former local elected officials with a power of influence over the population, traders and grands commerçants (big traders), some of whom actively supported armed groups and former combatants. In the refugee camps, those groups partly reproduced these roles in their new interactions.


The refugee camp: An opportunity for regional development?

While the arrival of refugees in a region is often interpreted as a threat to the local social fabric, it can also mean improved access to basic services for peripheral populations living there or, as in most cases, have a neutral impact on service provision to local communities. 

In the host localities of the Tillabéri region, findings indicate that the arrival of refugees with children has, for instance, contributed to increasing and diversifying education on offer. In the Ayorou’s refugee camp, a school was set up inside the camp, with the support of the Nigerien state and did not negatively impact on the surrounding schools. The same applies to the health sector that has not been negatively affected by new arrivals. In most cases, ad hoc services have been set up by UNHCR and national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to provide free care inside the camps for all refugees identified by the National Commission on Eligibility for Refugee Status. However, the deteriorating security situation in and around the camps has had an impact on the provision of health services and encouraged alternative options, such as mobile facilities. 

In most cases however, the arrival of these groups is perceived as an additional burden for local communities who already have a very limited access to basic services. Humanitarian support may also contribute to creating alleged inequalities. In that case, autochthonous communities may perceive new arrivals as having greater access to basic services. The Tillabéri region is no exception and in spite of the very long-standing presence of Malian communities, the arrival of new refugees has had a very strong impact on local dynamics and has also generated new tensions.


The weakening of already vulnerable spaces and communities

Most of the Malian refugees in the Tillabéri region are pastoralists who moved to Niger with their livestock. While they initially settled in the immediate vicinity of the camps, some gradually moved away from the camps and, by doing so, directly competed with local herders for access to pasture. However, tensions with the Nigerien herders have been mitigated, partly because of the familiarity of Malian transhumant herders with the region (as they settled in lands not competed) and, partly because of the mediating role played by traditional and customary leaders in the prevention and resolution of disputes. 

In the locality of Ayorou, chronic agricultural deficits—and what it implies for populations in terms of food insecurity—led to significant discontent towards the refugee groups. Their arrival has naturally increased the pressure on available resources and on host communities who, in some cases, were forced to take on debts to meet their most urgent, basic needs. According to Ayorou’s mayor, the locality ‘is a chronically deficit area. The massive influx of Malian refugees, combined with the scarcity of resources, has contributed to increasing the vulnerability of the commune’ (interview conducted on 6 August 2019).

In general, most disputes are related to misperceptions between communities regarding the total duration of Malian refugees’ settlement in the region. While some refugees have already decided to stay in Niger, they do not understand that official documents issued by Nigerien authorities, for example birth and marriage certificates, do not entitle them to Nigerien citizenship. On the other hand, the research findings indicate that local populations are also reluctant to host these communities for long periods as they accuse them of not playing an active role in local economic life. According to one merchant interviewed in Ayorou, ‘Refugees are lazy, they don’t want to work, they’re waiting for us to give them everything’. Or, in some cases, of not respecting the laws of Niger. A cercle leader in Ayorou hence declared that ‘Malian refugees have different behaviours and attitudes compared to our own. Our relationship with the administration and the power of the state is different from theirs. They are undisciplined, do not respect our laws and do not collaborate with the security forces in their mission to secure people and their property. They are used to the fact that in Mali there is no state and everyone does what they want’ (interview conducted on 6 August 2019).


Allogenous versus indigenous communities: The weakness of states as an aggravating factor to tensions

According to respondents interviewed by SIPRI/LASDEL in Ayorou, the arrival of the Malian refugees coincided with a new phenomenon of ‘great insecurity’ in a region so far only affected by residual insecurity and banditry (cattle theft, road blockers, etc.). Cross-border flows have not been halted by the conflict and the circulation of arms, including within the camp, has reportedly created a major security problem for the host authorities.

In Ayorou, for example, refugees are accused of being responsible for most of the attacks on the camp’s outskirts or in the locality. These events contribute to further fuelling the mistrust between Malian populations and host communities who are more and more inclined to distinguish between ‘real’ refugees—those who have already returned to their home villages—and ‘false’ refugees, traffickers and (former) combatants who have decided to remain in Niger to cause disorder. In an interview conducted in August 2019 in Ayorou, a state official stated for instance that, ‘Refugees are responsible for all the trouble we’ve had here in Ayorou in recent years. To tell you the truth... we feel threatened by the presence of these refugees. In fact, all the real refugees have already returned to their respective villages. Now, in this case, there are only those who have been tried again and the members of former gangs. In my opinion, they should be sent home’.


Putting the refugees back at the centre of regional stabilization strategies

Malian refugees in the G5 Sahel region pose a twofold challenge: 

Firstly, for neighbouring countries, such as Niger, they indirectly contribute to fuelling tensions with local communities who are already impacted by insecurity in Mali and live in a peripheral region with a weak state presence and poor access to basic services. SIPRI/LASDEL findings have shown that host populations can also experience the long-term presence of allogenous groups as a threat to their own security and livelihoods over perceived inequalities from humanitarian assistance programmes (better access to services). The situation is responsible for importing some of Mali's instability, especially by feeding local tensions among ethnic groups.

Secondly, for the government of Mali and its international partners, the presence of Malian refugees indicates that long-term stabilization remains strongly dependent on regional solutions. Although they are directly and indirectly victims of the armed conflicts in the Sahel, Malian refugees appear marginalized from the main stabilization strategies and programmes, apart from (urgent) immediate humanitarian assistance. The delays in implementing the 2015 inter-Malian peace agreement and the expansion of the conflict to new areas, for example in Central Mali or the Liptako–Gourma region, are now making their safe return even more problematic.


Dr Grégory Chauzal was a Senior Researcher and the Director of the SIPRI Sahel West Africa Programme.