A Different Kind of Refugee Settlement

We drove through the desert for most of the morning, careening over sand dunes and scrub brush, past the occasional village. I was traveling with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and we were on our way to visit Intikane, an area hosting refugees in Niger’s Tahoua region.

Refugees are often housed in barren, inhospitable places, on land that is vacant for good reason. Often they live in camps, isolated from local communities, markets, and ways to support their families. Too often, they must depend on aid organizations for their day to day survival.

But Intikane is a different kind of refugee settlement.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration Catherine Wiesner visits Intikane, an area hosting refugees in Niger’s Tahoua region, in July 2015.

In 2012, hundreds of thousands of people fled northern Mali to seek safety from an armed rebellion and insurgency that included Islamist militants associated with Al Qaeda.  These displaced people, many of whom were received as refugees in neighboring countries, posed unique challenges for groups who wanted to help them.  Many northern Malians are nomadic herders who move throughout the year as they seek good grazing land for their livestock. When they fled Mali, they came with not only their families, but also their animals.

In Niger, UNHCR set up refugee camps to provide shelter and emergency assistance to people fleeing the war, but soon learned there were groups of nomadic refugees living along the Mali-Niger border. They weren’t safe there, but were hesitant to move further inland to a refugee camp if they couldn’t bring their herds of cattle and camels.

So the UN and Nigerien government came up with a new plan. They decided to allow pastoral communities to bring their entire herds -- thousands of animals, all told -- into Niger. The government agreed to grant the refugees access to vast pasture lands, some 600 square kilometers at Intikane alone. The land was good for animals, but was sparsely inhabited because of poor access to water. In exchange, UNHCR agreed to rehabilitate a well that could provide water to the local community and the refugees, as well as to their livestock.  

Today, Intikane hosts 14,500 Malian refugees -- more than any refugee camp in Niger. Refugees can settle freely and move with their herds, and they and local Nigeriens benefit from the water infrastructure, clinic, and school UNHCR has opened. The Intikane school has grown to become the largest in Tahoua region, and attendance rates among refugee children are higher than they were back in Mali before the conflict.

Tuareg men and boys came on camel back to greet Deputy Assistant Secretary Wiesner's caravan during her visit to Intikane [State Department Photo]

We arrived at Intikane just as the first rains of the season were bringing trees back to life.  The refugees’ tents were scattered across the valley, not lined up close together. It looked like a typical Malian village, not a refugee camp.

Several dozen Tuareg men and boys came on camel back to greet our caravan. Together with local authorities, refugee leaders showed us the rehabilitated well, and the pumping station that provides drinking water for the refugees, a nearby village, and a watering post where cattle, camels, and donkeys were drinking from low metal troughs. The refugees told me that having water and grazing land for their livestock enabled them to provide for their families, and they described how much they preferred this to living in a camp.  

The United States is the single largest donor to refugee programs in Africa, and we fully encourage UNHCR’s efforts to work with governments to establish alternatives to camps.  In fact, for many years now, the United States has been working to implement a policy that seeks to develop and strengthen models of refugee assistance outside of camps. We believe there should be more places, like Intikane, that allow refugees to organize their own communities, and live with the greater dignity and independence.

About the Author: Catherine Wiesner serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration.

Malians, fleeing fighting, cross the Niger river with a cow
July 29, 2015

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