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Extreme Drought and Violence: Under-Reported Displacement in Burkina Faso

By Airi Price

Situated in the heart of West Africa, Burkina Faso is a small, landlocked country home to an estimated 20.9 million. Events of Burkina Faso have largely been omitted from global media in recent years; however, the country has been devastated by destabilized governance, severe water scarcity, and terrorism. Such marginalization has curtailed information on the current economic and health conditions of the country. Yet, it can be assumed that dire circumstances are intensifying, as contributing factors persist.

Burkina Faso is located within the Sahel – a large strip of land running across the African continent, representing the transition between the desert and savannah climates. The We are Water Foundation reports that reoccurring drought, since 1915, has resulted in unregulated migration throughout the Sahel for resettlement on fertile land.

"Though such home conditions are poor, some Burkinabes consider return as a better option than residing in refugee camps"

Nonetheless, unsustainable land use and rising temperatures within the past 20 years has aggravated drought conditions and comprised the remaining fecundity of Sahel land. So much so, that the famine-stricken region had been dubbed, the “African Hunger Belt,” by the global media in 1984. The statistical invisibility of Sahelian nations is an unfortunate outcome of this media reference. Along with its neighbors, Burkina Faso had become submerged in generalized data surrounding in the Sahel, rather than being individually represented in media.

Since mid-2018, violence from the neighboring countries of Niger and Mali has spilled over into the borders of Burkina Faso. As early as 2012, reports of jihadist conflict had arisen in Mali. As violence deepened, various Jihadist groups emerged in the central Sahel region, each competing for territorial control. Prominent actors include Al-Qaeda’s Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, as well as their opponents, the Islamic State in West Africa Province and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.

As conflict expanded through Mali’s northern border, jihadist attacks became increasingly common in Burkina Faso. Such violence is perpetuated in the form of village lootings, destruction of infrastructure, and recruitment of child soldiers. The armed groups consistently target churches, health centers, and schools providing secular education.

The Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect accounts for the abduction or murder of at least 300 community, religious, and political leaders in the Mali-Burkina Faso border region since 2018. Though violence has just recently permeated its land, Burkina Faso has quickly become the epicenter of jihadist conflict in the Sahel.

In fact, the Geneva Center for Security Sector Governance noted that Burkina Faso, out of all ten Sahelian countries, had suffered the most jihadist attacks in 2019. The situation only worsened in 2020, as armed groups indiscriminately targeted civilian masses through the use of land mines. Most recently, in June of 2021, one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the country was reported in its northern province. Child soldiers, under the order of the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, carried out the mass murder of more than 130 civilians, per the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect.

As of February of 2021, Refugees International has accounted for 1.2 million Burkinabe IDPs and 3.5 million in need of humanitarian aid.

A fairly weak economic status severely restricts Burkinabe government capacity to intervene in jihadist violence and provide protection to displaced households. With a UN Development Index ranking of 182 (out of 189 countries), Burkinabes are critically vulnerable to both internal and external shocks. In 2018, the World Bank estimated that at least 40.1% of the population lives below the poverty line.

The situation is relatively the same in 2022, given that majority of Burkinabes remain limited to sustenance work on small farms amidst chronic drought. The depravation of livelihood is expected to extend through future generations, as Deutsche Welle states that 54% of Burkinabe IDPs are younger than 14. In addition, 2,244 schools shut down in 2021 due to persistent threats of terrorism.

Though such home conditions are poor, some Burkinabes consider return as a better option than residing in refugee camps. In speaking with Deutsche Welle, one man describes the hardships for Burkinabe refugees, “we simply exist, there is nothing to do and if we aren’t given food, we have nothing to eat.” Emergency shelters and camps have been erected in unaffected parts of Burkina Faso, as well as neighboring countries of Mali, Niger, Benin, and the Ivory Coast.

As evidenced, however, facilities are disparagingly underprepared to support the growing influx of refugees fleeing from jihadist violence. In 2021, UNHCR required $602 million in funding for Burkinabe refugee operations, yet, only received a fourth of that amount. As funding remains meager entering 2022, Burkinabes are faced with two unjust, and equally fatal, options: endure violence with no government protection at home, or flee and face starvation with little humanitarian support. With scant media coverage of their situation, Burkinabes are subject to an impossible dilemma right under the nose of the international community.


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