UNICEF is present in the Sahel regions UNICEF is present in the Sahel regions 

UNICEF launches appeal to save the children in the Central Sahel

A recently released UNICEF report reveals that ten million children in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, and that spiralling conflict is causing hostilities to spill over into neighbouring nations triggering a widening crisis with far-reaching consequences.

By Linda Bordoni

10 million children in need of humanitarian assistance in the Central Sahel is twice as many as in 2020 and the growing, and rapidly spreading crisis, is largely due to spiralling conflict and insecurity.

Entitled “Child alert: Extreme jeopardy in the central Sahel”, a report released on 17 March by UNICEF’s West and Central Africa office, calls for stronger humanitarian response and long-term investment to help the children at high risk of violence, loss of education, recruitment as child soldiers, displacement and malnutrition.

UNICEF’s communications expert for West and Central Africa spoke to Vatican Radio of the plight of children caught up in violence in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, and of increasing insecurity in neighbouring countries.

John James noted that about half the population in the Sahel regions are children whose rights need to be upheld, and who must be protected and promoted for their future and the good of humanity.

Listen to the interview with John James, Communications Expert for UNICEF

James highlighted the fact that conflict and the impact it is having on people – and in particular on children – of the Sahel region, has been “getting a lot worse” in the past couple of years, and he explained that insecurity is now” moving south, into the countries along the coast as well.”

The region

The Central Sahel is a vast region, mostly ignored by the international press, and includes three landlocked countries: Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, spreading across the southern part of the Sahara and the northern coastal area.

He warned that the conflict that started in northern Mali has spread to Burkina Faso and that today it impacts the west African nations of Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Benin and Togo, where attacks are increasingly taking place on schools and communities by armed groups who are pushing people off their farms and their land.

“We've got now about 2.7 million people displaced within those three countries of the Central Sahara.”

A child in a UNICEF tented facility in Mali
A child in a UNICEF tented facility in Mali

The impact on children

James said that tragically, “children are really amongst the most impacted by this crisis.” In fact, he explained, it's an area with a young population which means about half of the population are, in fact, children.

“Secondly, “ he continued, “we're seeing tactics towards attacking government services, civilian communities and some of the symbols of the government, such as schools and health centres.”

Within the central Sahel region, he said, more than 8,000 schools have been forced to close because they've either been attacked or threatened, causing the teachers to flee.

In Burkina Faso, he added, about a quarter of schools are now closed because of insecurity.

UNICEF helps children go to school
UNICEF helps children go to school

Massive displacement

Displacement is a spiralling problem in the region with around 2.7 million people forced from their homes. 

Half of those, James said, are children “who move into displacement sites elsewhere in the country, or into host communities, where other vulnerable communities shelter them.”

Child soldiers

“We've seen an increasing number of children also recruited into some of these armed groups in Mali,” James continued, noting that “in the first half of last year, the numbers increased threefold to around 480 verified cases of recruitment of children by armed groups and forces.

And of course, he added, children are affected by the conflict in the sense that they are victims of violent attacks and of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that target people indiscriminately.


“Water points - places where people go for water - are deliberately attacked, and even some of the water trucks that we use to deliver water have been targeted by some of these armed groups,” James said, highlighting the fact that water is crucial for children, as it is for families: “And so that has a huge impact on their lives.”

The ongoing violence, he explained, aims to destabilize local governments, but has huge consequences for children who are increasingly forced to seek refuge in countries to the south.

A child fetches water at a community water point
A child fetches water at a community water point

UNICEF’s response 

John James said the United Nations Children’s Fund has been present in the Central Sahel for many decades, with about 600 staff across the three countries and around 15 offices.

Together with partner organisations UNICEF is providing education, health services, and vaccinations.

“We're looking at child protection for children caught up in the conflict, dealing with malnutrition, education and WASH: water, sanitation and hygiene,” he said, noting that with many of these programmes, the organization is reaching millions of children in these zones.

“But all this does require support.”

Some of it, James explained, is required for life-saving emergency response, but UNICEF is also calling on donors and supporters to invest in long-term development within these countries because “this really needs a long-term approach.”

“It doesn't need a sticking plaster; it needs a response that is flexible and that can invest in these places where there's conflict.”

He pointed out that if an investment is made to keep services going in these areas, this could “reduce the likelihood of conflict in the future and build social cohesion in those areas.”

UNICEF is present in volatile areas of the Central Sahel
UNICEF is present in volatile areas of the Central Sahel

A forgotten emergency

James agreed this is “definitely one of those forgotten emergencies,” with international attention focussed on many other big conflicts during the past 12 months or so.

“It is not a region that does get a lot of attention, which is why we're raising a red flag with this report to say: ‘Look, there's something serious going on and it's getting a lot worse, very fast’.”

It’s not only other wars and crises diverting attention and funds, he said, noting that rising food prices and climate change also have a huge impact.

“But we believe, even though this may be one of the poorest parts in the world and may be quite forgotten, it deserves attention,” he said.

“There are children here, who have children’s rights and human rights that are being impacted, and it really does deserve attention.”

The report, he reiterated, is a sort of an alarm call to say: “This area needs attention!”

UNICEF's mandate is to save and support children
UNICEF's mandate is to save and support children


The crisis in the Central Sahel is a complex one, James acknowledged, and he pointed out that UNICEF’s appeal is very much in line with what Pope Francis often reminds us of: that each person and each child has dignity, has rights: deserves attention.

And these are children, he added, who are victims and survivors of violence, of the arms trade, of political and economic interests, all things that they're not in any way to blame for, need support.

Many displaced people, he concluded, “will go to other African countries, and there's a lot of hospitality and countries accepting them nearby.”

“But if we can help this region to function properly to enjoy peace and prosperity, I think we will have a huge impact on many things around the world.”

If you want to support UNICEF’s work in the central Sahel, click here or here.

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29 March 2023, 18:46