First Person

Mali’s displaced: The complexity of three letters

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What must it be like to know that your community is right around the corner, but conflict keeps you from coming home to your friends and family? In Mali, that’s the situation of 240,000 people in an area the size of Texas. Oxfam is reaching out to see how we can help them.

The complexity of three letters

In humanitarian terms, an internally-displaced person (IDP) is someone who is forced from his or her home, usually due to natural disaster or conflict, and living temporarily in another area of his or her own country. That’s in contrast to a refugee, who is displaced to another country and cannot return home due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” for a variety of reasons (race, religion, nationality, etc). IDPs on the other hand may have the same well-founded fear, but as they have not crossed an international border cannot avail themselves of the specific rights under the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This international law prevents them from, among many things, being “involuntarily repatriated”—they can’t be forced to go home.

I thought recently about the complexity of those three letters – IDP – while speaking with my Senegalese colleague Habibatou Gogolo, Oxfam’s media and communications coordinator in Bamako, Mali. She had just returned from an assessment trip visiting IDP communities.

A focus group with the Oxfam assessment team Sévaré in Hotel des chauffeurs, Mali. In the site known as “Hotel des chauffeurs”, local authorities provide accommodation for, according to them, 587 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Photo: Habibatou Gologo/Oxfam

She joined a team of Oxfam experts in water and sanitation services, food security, and civilian protection assessing how (or if) Oxfam can be of service in Sevare, a district of Mopti, which is on the border of southern and northern Mali. In February 2012, shortly after armed groups seized northern Mali, the first people fleeing their homes sought safety in Mopti. So the IDPs in Sevare are among the longest-standing homeless families in Mali.

Habibatou visited one “official” IDP camp that receives services from humanitarian organizations. There are still challenges, like clean water shortages and overcrowded toilets, but life on this site is relatively stable and safe from an outside perspective. Aid organizations distribute food regularly and women are washing clothes as they would at home, but if you look closely, Gogolo says it’s clear that life for these families has been turned upside down.

“They need psychological support”

Our Oxfam team assessed the IDPs’ basic survival needs in Sevare, but to Habibatou, their emotional needs were quite apparent as well.

“Perhaps most of all, they need psychological support,” Habibatou said. “People kept talking about last January [2013] when the violence and conflict in their lives began. Their towns were occupied in less than one day. Suddenly, women and children were forced to live under strict Sharia law, people were whipped in the streets for violations. The women are still unable to sleep, remembering the violence, the noise.”

When the French military intervened to support the Malian army in January, there was hope among Malian IDPs that they would be able to return to their homes soon after. But conflict is complicated, and local authorities in Sevare told Habibatou that the immediate return of IDPs to their homes is unrealistic. The government, with support from the international community, must assess dangers and implement security measures and families will need resources, including money for transportation and food for at least a couple of months to get them back on their feet.

So, the “IDP” label will stay with the people in Sevare for the foreseeable future, but we’ve learned that their experience goes way beyond those three letters.

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