NEW YORK, 17th March, 2023 (WAM) -- 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 spiralling conflict, while nearly 4 million children are at risk in neighbouring countries as hostilities between armed groups and national security forces spill across borders, according to a child alert issued today by the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF).
"Children are increasingly caught up in the armed conflict, as victims of intensifying military clashes, or targeted by non-state armed groups," said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa. "The year 2022 was particularly violent for children in the central Sahel. All parties to the conflict need to urgently stop attacks both on children, and their schools, health centres, and homes."
In Burkina Faso, three times more children were verified as killed during the first nine months of 2022 than in the same period in 2021, according to UN data. Most of the children died from gunshot wounds during attacks on their villages or as a result of improvised explosive devices or explosive remnants of war.
The armed conflict has become increasingly brutal. Some of the armed groups that operate across vast swathes of Mali, Burkina Faso, and increasingly in Niger employ tactics that include blockading towns and villages and sabotaging water networks. Over 20,000 people in the border area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger will be in "catastrophe"-level food insecurity by June 2023, according to recent projections.
Armed groups that oppose state-administered education systematically burn and loot schools, and threaten, abduct or kill teachers. Over 8,300 schools have shut down across the three countries because they were directly targeted, teachers have fled, or because parents were displaced or too frightened to send their children to school. More than 1 in 5 schools in Burkina Faso have closed and 30 percent of schools in Niger's Tillaberi region are no longer functional due to the conflict.
Hostilities are spilling over from the central Sahel into the northern border regions of Benin, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana and Togo - remote communities with scarce infrastructure and resources, where children have extremely limited access to essential services and protection.
At least 172 violent incidents, including attacks by armed groups, were reported in the northern border areas of the four countries in 2022. In Benin, which has been hit the hardest, up to 16 percent of the population are considered at risk, according to a regional monitoring network. In both Benin and Togo, nine schools in the countries' northern regions had shut down or were no longer functional due to insecurity by late 2022.
The crisis is unfolding in one of the most climate-affected regions on the planet. Temperatures in the Sahel are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average. Rainfall is more erratic and intense, causing floods that reduce crop yields and contaminate scarce water supplies. In 2022, the worst flooding in years damaged or destroyed 38,000 homes in Niger, which ranks 7th globally on UNICEF's Children's Climate Risk Index.
The crisis in the central Sahel remains chronically and critically underfunded: in 2022, UNICEF received just one third of its US$391 million Central Sahel appeal. In 2023, UNICEF has appealed for US$473.8 million to support our humanitarian response in the central Sahel and in neighbouring coastal countries.
"The scale of the crisis in the central Sahel and, increasingly, in neighbouring coastal countries urgently requires a stronger humanitarian response as well as long-term flexible investment in resilient essential social services that will help consolidate social cohesion, sustainable development, and a better future for children," said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa.
To address the increasingly dire threat to children in the central Sahel, UNICEF urged governments across the central Sahel and affected coastal countries, along with technical and financial partners, to significantly scale up investment in expanding access to essential social services and protection, as key pathways to peace and security. This scale up should focus on reinforcing and supporting local systems, networks and workforces that are the first responders during crises, and that can consistently reach children, particularly in hard-to-reach communities.
UNICEF also called on all parties to the conflict to fulfil their fundamental moral and legal obligations toward children under international humanitarian and human rights law. This includes ending attacks on children and the services they rely on; respecting humanitarian space and access; implementing specific protocols on the treatment of children affected by the armed conflict; and engaging systematically with the United Nations on concrete action plans to end grave violations against children.