Making a home: A refugee waters her tomato garden at a UN site in Niger where thousands of Malian refugees live. Photo: Boureima Hama/AFP/Getty
The day breaks, and many of the thousands of Malian refugees in Ouallam are already up and about.
Some have left for the market to sell animals and handicrafts, while others are getting to work in a local brickyard. Barefoot and bare-chested children line up in front of a couscous vendor while school children, bags on their backs, head off to class.
Their refugee camp, located about 100km north of Niamey in southwestern Niger, is a haven for around 6 000 people.
They are just a small number of the tens of thousands of Malians who have fled jihadist attacks to take shelter in their deeply impoverished neighbour.
But as time passes, many refugees see little or no hope of returning to their homes and want to integrate into local communities.
“We have wandered enough and suffered enough — we are finally going to settle down here and give our children a future,” said Hama Dawa.
Agaichatou, a baby on her back, paused for a moment from pounding millet for the evening meal.
“Go back to Mali?” asked the young mother from Menala in Mali’s northeast.
“I’ve almost nothing there now — my children were born in Niger, one of them goes to school here. Their future is here.”
Safety is key
“Returning to Mali is not on the agenda,” Mahamadou Seguid, a spokesperson for the refugees at Ouallam, told AFP.
“For the moment we are building our future here. We are well assisted and it is safe.”
More than 61 000 Malians are in Niger after fleeing northern Mali a decade ago when the region fell under the control of jihadist groups.
The UN and the Nigerien authorities are postponing their return indefinitely because of persistent attacks by jihadist groups, including the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
“We are following the developments in Mali with some concern,” UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi, who visited Ouallam recently, told AFP.
“We hope they will become more positive, because without peace there will be no return of refugees.”
Laouan Magagi, Niger’s minister for humanitarian work, agreed.
“With the worsening of security in the three-border area (where the frontiers of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso converge), the conditions for their return are obviously not there,” he said.
With a shrug of the shoulders, the refugees recognise the reality of the situation.
Many provide the economic lifeblood of Ouallam, a small town of 15 000 inhabitants, through “common spaces” set up by the UNHCR: shops, health centres, schools.
Some refugees received sheep and goats to get milk and develop a livelihood, said Ousseini Hassane, another refugee.
In the space of three years, the site has been transformed from a chaos of shelters into a real neighbourhood: small ochre brick houses are gradually taking the place of shelters and makeshift tarpaulins that were regularly destroyed by sandstorms and floods.
There is a school, a drinking-water fountain connected to the town’s water system, solar street lights, a children’s playground and a small park.
More than 400 families have already been rehoused in houses where they live alongside locals.
The UNHCR has promised that 800 houses will go up soon.
This “extraordinary project aims to ensure positive coexistence between the locals and the refugees,” said Grandi.
Of the 600 students at the newly-built school in Ouallam, “40 percent” are refugee children, he says.
Recently, a field was created where refugees and Nigeriens jointly grow fruit and vegetables.
Farmed by 464 people, including 404 women, with the help of agronomists, the five-hectare plot is equipped with a drip irrigation system and soil humidity sensors to help conserve water in this hot, semi-arid climate.
“I was able to earn my own money at last after selling part of my production,” said Madinat, a refugee, watering can in hand.
Niger is itself a victim of jihadism, fighting bloody insurgencies on its southwestern border with Mali and on its southeastern frontier with Nigeria. More than a quarter of a million of its citizens have been displaced since 2015.
It is also the world’s poorest country, according to the UN’s Human Development Index.
Despite this, Niger is home to more than 266 400 Nigerian and Malian refugees, to which have just been added more than 13 000 Burkinabe fleeing jihadist atrocities. – AFP