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One of 1083: Urban Refugees in Bobo-Dioulasso (Burkina Faso)

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By Nora Bardelli, DPhil Candidate and Barrow Foundation Scholar at the Refugee Studies Centre,  Department of International Development, University of Oxford, dated 27 May 2016

I arrive at the burgundy gate, and I can already hear her before letting myself in. Bettie laughs, a lot. Even when she talks sadness, she smiles. She is 25 years old and full of energy, has a son in kindergarten, a big family, and recently started her own small business selling shoes, jewellery, clothes, and scarfs. It’s going well; she is proud of it. She can now save some money and spend a little as she wishes in addition to accounting for necessities. This was not a given for her last couple of years. To complement her work ethic, she was also lucky to meet the right people and find good opportunities that enabled her to start her business. She is lucky to have a good ‘support network’ from friends and neighbours.

Bettie is a Malian living in Burkina Faso; she is one of the 1083Malian urban refugees (possessing the legal status)living in Bobo-Dioulasso. She is originally from Timbuktu, but was born in Burkina Faso to Malian refugee parents during the Tuareg rebellion that hit Mali in the early 1990s. At three months old, following her parents’ divorce, she moved to Bamako, where she grew up with her sister, mother, and their extended family. When her mother died during her teenage years, Bettie’s grandfather – to whom she and her sister were very close – took charge of them and encouraged them to continue their education.

When Bettie was 15, the extended family wanted to marry her to an older family member living somewhere in the north of Mali. She abhorred the idea, and thus she ran away. Since then, arranged marriage is a theme she cares a lot for and she fights against in her own way: every time she hears about a girl that has to marry someone in her community or neighbourhood through family arrangements, she denounces it to the authorities, as it is illegal.

After running away from the family, she kept living in Bamako and going to school, enabled by her grandfather secretly sending her money. A year after starting high school, she fell in love with a schoolmate. He was Bamana, while she is Tuareg. Much prejudice exists in Mali, split along lines of skin tone and ethnicity. In Bettie’s life, this persistent racism materialised when pregnant, in 2010. Her boyfriend left her and his family cut off all contact with her, thus precluding any possibility of their recognising the child as part of their family. Bettie had to leave school, and the only place she had to go was her maternal family’s home. Due to the complexion of her baby (darker than the Tuareg nobility were supposed to be) and her decision to run away from her family when they wanted her to get married, her time back in the family was not easy. But she felt she had no other choice except to endure this if she wanted to be able to provide for herself and the baby. “Family is family, and they have to be there for you, but they can be very hard on you if you don’t do as they wish”.

As soon as the recent crisis in northern Mali broke out, tensions between Tuareg and non-Tuareg increased. Bettie, her son, her grandmother, and her three younger brothers, decided it was safer and a better bet for their future to come to Burkina Faso and ask to be recognised as refugees. Bettie is the oldest within the four youngster, and it is thus up to her to take care of the family.

The Malian refugees living in Bobo-Dioulasso come from all the parts of Mali: north, centre, and south. Those coming from areas that are not directly and physically touched by the on-going conflict are leaving behind persecution and stigmatisation. The latter group consists primarily of Tuaregs living in the centre and south of the country. Tuareg are identified as those supporting the uprisings in the north, as the rebel groups and jihadist groups are partly/mostly comprised of Tuareg forces. They thus face much antipathy in Mali – and elsewhere – since the start of the conflict in January 2012.

Bettie and her family have been living as refugees in Bobo-Dioulasso since 2012. At first, she could not find regular employment, and all she managed to gain was directed towards re-enrolling her brothers and son in school and paying for services, housing and food not provided by the World Food Program (WFP) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR – they partly takes charge of health-care and schooling fees as well).

Part of Bettie’s family is still in Mali, mostly in central and southern Mali. She could go back if she wanted or really needed to, but because she is finding her own way now and her brothers and son are schooled here, she is staying. Additionally, she has a wide network of friends and support (including a women’s organisation she helped to create). If she returned to Mali, she told me she would be expected to get married and stay home. Family pressure would be greater there. She likes it here because it affords her more independence; she does not have to stay at home “doing nothing.”

As mentioned earlier, in the last two months Bettie has started a small business that provides her with a secure financial base. She could not have started at a more appropriate time. Since January 2016, food and cash assistance, previously provided by WFP, was cut for urban refugees. This measure has been explained as a necessity due to a shortage of donors for the Sahel crisis. The funding shortage has pushed international agencies to focus aid on those categorised as the more vulnerable refugees: Malian living in camps in the north of Burkina Faso.

Urban refugees are supposedly – compared to refugees living in other contexts, such as camps and rural areas – more exposed to working opportunities, more skilled, and often able to continue their previous activities in exile (in Burkina Faso, Malians have the same working rights as citizens); they thus need less assistance from humanitarian organisations. This is one of the many situations in which urban refugees can find themselves. Yet, there are also plenty of Malians here in the city who are not as lucky as Bettie, who are not more exposed to working opportunities, who are not highly skilled, and who cannot continue their previous activities. For them, cutting the food and financial assistance that they had become accustomed to receiving for the past three or four years poses a great challenge.

That measure is supposed to provide more help to the more vulnerable, but draws an arbitrary line that cuts off access to necessary aid for the more vulnerable choosing to live in an urban space. Aid organisations have promised that punctual help will come for the urban refugees who need it most, but this population has seen nothing come their way. Similarly, it was said urban refugees would get help to start their own activities and/or projects, mostly in forms of income-generating activities (IGA). This has not been the case either, as of this writing.

Malian refugees in Burkina have been offered the opportunity to apply for ‘facilitated return’ since 2014.This means that Malian refugees can go back to Mali if they wish so, and UNHCR and the National commission for refugees (CONAREF) will help them (financially and logistically) in this process. When applying for facilitated return, one ‘gives up’ his/her status, and receives 35’000 CFA (around £35), so that the person can theoretically pay for transportation and survive the first days of settling back.

The CONAREF carries out interviews with the refugees asking for this process, to make sure they understand what it implies – losing refugee status and the attached protection – and that they actually want to return. Additionally, CONAREF also checks the security conditions of the area the Malian says he/she/they want to go to,to advise them on whether it is safe for them to return.

Some of the refugees applying for facilitated return do not actually go back to Mali, rather they go through this process to receive the provided 35’000 CFA. In doing this, they lose the protection and free healthcare that come with refugee status, and once they will have spent the money, they cannot have refugee status back easily. The people following this measure are the more vulnerable, those for whom cutting food and cash assistance means cutting everything they have. The local staff of the only organisation still doing first-hand work with the Malians is very concerned about the more vulnerable groups (single mothers, elderly, disabled people, those in lack of means, etc.), and “it has only been two months without the assistance,” a humanitarian worker told me back in March.

To be precise, in addition to facilitated return, urban refugees were given another choice when informed that assistance for them will stop: if they accepted a move to one of the two camps in the north of Burkina Faso, they would still receive food and cash assistance. Not every one of my informants understood or agreed with the logic behind this: if I move to A, I have the right to monthly receive food and 3’500 CFA, if I stay in B, I don’t. If I go to A, that money and food can be found, but if I stay in B, there is not enough funding for me to receive it. Reflecting on this choice, it seems like encampment may be privileged and pushed for by the agencies and the local government. “If someone is in real need, he/she should just move to the camp. If she/he stays in the city it means they have means to survive and don’t need assistance” – I was told this by someone working for one of the humanitarian agencies involved in Burkina Faso.

To conclude, the aim of this very short piece was twofold: on one side, it wanted to contextualise Bettie’s life into the broader setting of the contemporary humanitarian intervention in Burkina Faso and the Sahel region. On the other side, it wanted to providean insight in what can be the life of a Malian urban refugee in Burkina Faso, while being aware of the complexity behind that legal category, and of the multitude of experiences that refugees – urban and not – live everyday.

Nora Bardelli is a DPhil Candidate and Barrow Foundation Scholar at the Refugee Studies Centre,  Department of International Development, University of Oxford

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