The refugees fleeing Mali tell aid agencies that they have seen executions and amputations, have had family members "disappear" and have seen rebel armies recruiting children.
Mali has seen an increase in both internal and external refugees over the past year -- ever since Islamists moved into the northern regions and imposed harsh sharia law, with forced marriages, amputations and public whippings. But after the French military entered Mali to try to drive out the Islamists, there's been an uptick in the number of people crossing into neighboring countries – almost 1,500 have crossed into Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso since last week, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
"Refugees are telling us they fled the ongoing military intervention, the absence of subsistence opportunities and basic services, and the imposition of Sharia law," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said in Geneva this week.
As of Tuesday, the Commission on Population Movements reported that almost 230,000 people had been forcibly displaced in Mali since early 2012. There are also an estimated 144,500 Malian refugees in the region, including 54,000 in Mauritania, 50,000 in Niger, 38,800 in Burkina Faso and 1,500 in Algeria. Small groups are also in Guinea and Togo, UNHCR reported. Here's a map of where they are now, with darker red representing more people:
Some 700,000 more Malians are expected to be displaced in coming months -- 300,000 inside Mali and 400,000 to other countries, the UNHCR said Friday. Mali's total population is about 15 million.
Now, international aid groups are warning of a coming crisis as camps in neighboring countries already lack enough food and shelter for the swelling populations of displaced people. A survey by MSF in Mauritania found that nearly one in five Malian refugee children are malnourished and 4.6 percent are in danger of dying.
Meanwhile, the UN's World Food Program said on Friday that its distribution of food aid in northern Mali was still suspended because of a lack of security, and many Malians in the south are housing several other families who have fled the conflict in the north.
UNHCR has said it is still struggling with a severe lack of funding, despite a recent $10 million donation from the United States and other donors. The agency has so far received $49.9 million out of the $153 million needed for the emergency operation, the organization said in a news release.
One problem seems to stem from the fact that the countries that are absorbing the refugees are themselves poor and not particularly stable.
“When you have over 250,000 people in semi-desert areas of landlocked countries, with huge logistic problems, and when those countries themselves are facing exceptional challenges, not only in relation to development but also in their capacity to feed their own people, it is obvious that all the resources that we can find are not yet in proportion with the needs we face,” The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said in a recent visit to a camp for Malian refugees in Burkina Faso.
The numbers may not sound like much compared with other big, recent conflicts. Millions of Sudanese fled their homes throughout the last decade as Darfur was ravaged by civil war. And there are more than 650,000 Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, with numbers growing by about 3,000 a day.
But that just shows how quickly refugee flows can spiral out of control, swelling crowded camps where thousands endure disease and hardship. Mali is now facing, as Refugee International calls it, three growing and interconnected emergencies: a food crisis, armed conflict, and the political crisis. It's a familiar story for African conflicts, and one that doesn't get any easier for aid agencies to solve.