By Kamil Opeyemi
UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), says children are increasingly caught up in armed conflict in the climate-affected, food insecure central Sahel region.
“Brutal” armed conflict has left 10 million children in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger in need of humanitarian assistance – more than double the number in 2020, UNICEF warned in a new report published on Friday.
The UN agency stated that hostilities spilling over into neighbouring countries, are putting an extra four million children at risk.
“The conflict may not have clear boundaries, there may not be headline-grabbing battles, but slowly and surely things have been getting worse for children,.
“It has gone worst as millions of them are now caught up in the centre of this crisis,” UNICEF spokesperson John James said while reacting to the report.
Children living on the frontlines of hostilities between armed groups and national security forces are increasingly in the line of fire, too.
In Burkina Faso, for instance, the number of children killed during the first nine months of 2022 tripled compared to the same period in 2021.
Children are also being recruited by armed groups and forced to fight or support militants in backup role, UNICEF said.
In addition, armed groups in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have been directly targeting schools, in an “accelerating attack” on education.
According to the UNICEF report, more than a fifth of schools in Burkina Faso have closed as a result of attacks.
“More than 8,300 schools in those three countries – Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – are now closed due to violence and insecurity,’’ James told journalists in Geneva.
“That’s teachers who fled the schools, children who are too scared to go to the schools, families who are displaced – that’s buildings that have been attacked and caught up in the violence.’’
Hostilities have already spilled over from the central Sahel into the northern border regions of Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo where, UNICEF notes, “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.
UNICEF explained that the central Sahel suffers from severe food and water scarcity, and that armed groups make survival for civilians even harder by blockading towns and villages and contaminating water points.
Fifty-eight water points were attacked in Burkina Faso alone in 2022, close to a threefold increase from the previous year.
Overall, more than 20,000 people in the border area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger face ‘catastrophe-level’ food insecurity by June 2023, according to humanitarian assessments.
According to UNICEF, climate shocks are a key factor affecting crops, with temperatures in the Sahel rising “1.5 times faster than the global average”, and “erratic” rainfall which leads to flooding.
The impacts of extreme weather events are an important driver of displacement, with over 2.7 million displaced across the three countries.
Meanwhile, UNICEF underscored that the crisis in the central Sahel remains “chronically and critically underfunded”, with only one third of the required funding received in 2022.
This year, the UN agency has appealed for S$473.8 million to support its humanitarian response in the central Sahel and in neighbouring coastal countries.
UNICEF has also called for “long-term flexible investment” in essential social services and stressed the need to work with communities and young people in the region to ensure a better future for them.