An estimated 80,000 Malians were refugees at the end of 1996: some 25,000 in Burkina Faso, about 25,000 in Niger, approximately 15,000 in Mauritania, and some 15,000 in Algeria. Mali hosted about 15,000 refugees from Mauritania. Between 50,000 and 80,000 refugees repatriated to Mali during the year, as the pace of return accelerated after years of delay. Pre-1996 Events Ethnic Tuaregs in northern Mali launched an insurgency in 1991-92 to wrest autonomy from the Malian government. Tuaregs became targets for reprisals by Malian troops and fled the country. Ethnic Moors also fled. A National Pact signed by Tuareg rebel leaders and the Mali government in 1992 temporarily curtailed the violence but did not end it completely. Some Tuareg rebel leaders opposed the pact and continued the war. During 1994, insurgents escalated their attacks in the north, and government troops retaliated. An estimated 50,000 or more new refugees fled the country. Tuareg factions ended hostilities among themselves in 1995, setting the stage for peace and repatriation. Number of Returnees The size of the Malian refugee population has never been certain and remained unclear throughout 1996. Many of the refugees were nomadic Tuaregs who were difficult to count even in peaceful times. The conflict zone of northern Mali was remote, and Malian refugees who fled the violence usually headed deeper into the vast Sahara Desert. Some asylum countries regarded the Tuaregs as economic migrants rather than as refugees, and restricted UNHCR's direct assistance to them. Tuareg political groups regularly asserted that the size of the Tuareg refugee population was vastly greater than commonly understood. They claimed that between 250,000 and 500,000 Tuaregs were refugees at far-flung locations in the Sahara Desert. UNHCR and other sources estimated that approximately 100,000 were bona fide refugees. UNHCR acknowledged, however, that "statistics of Malian refugees are difficult to compile." As Malians began returning spontaneously to their home areas during 1995-96, Malian officials rather than UNHCR counted and registered them, creating statistics that could not be verified. Government authorities stated that approximately 50,000 refugees repatriated without assistance during 1996. The actual number might have been less, however. An additional 30,000 refugees repatriated with UNHCR assistance during the year. About half of them traveled home in UNHCR-organized convoys across the desert. The other half arranged their own transportation home but received a repatriation package to assist them. Repatriation Assistance UNHCR struggled to cope with Malian repatriation during the year. The agency suffered shortages of staff, vehicles, and other equipment. Transporting refugees across the Sahara Desert and monitoring their well-being in isolated areas of Mali posed a unique logistical challenge. Uncertainties about the actual numbers of refugees and returnees posed another difficulty. UNHCR asked international donors for nearly $13 million to support the repatriation program, but the project received only half that amount by year's end. UNHCR established five transit centers by November to receive returnees, and planned to open eight more transit centers in 1997. Refugees who returned with UNHCR assistance received tents, blankets, cooking utensils, soap, and a three- to six-month food supply. UNHCR planned to spend up to 40 percent of its program budget to improve or construct some 270 watering sites for the use of returnees and other inhabitants. Aid agencies were establishing food-for-work programs. Agencies planned to provide special reintegration help to 9,000 former combatants who were expected to return. The long-term stability of repatriation and reintegration in Mali was far from certain. Land disputes occurred in 1996 among returnees, and between returnees and the government. Banditry was a "growing concern," according to UNHCR. "Operations have been negatively affected by the loss of lives, vehicles, and other equipment," UNHCR reported. The government's ability to maintain adequate staff at schools and clinics under construction in remote returnee areas was unproven. Some observers doubted that traditionally nomadic Tuaregs would become sedentary farmers after returning to Mali, despite programs geared to facilitate that change in lifestyle. UNHCR expected most remaining refugees to repatriate to Mali in 1997. About 5,000 refugees might choose never to repatriate, according to estimates. Mauritanian Refugees An estimated 15,000 Mauritanian refugees remained in Mali, living near the border between the two countries. Some sources speculated that the refugee population was fewer than 15,000. Most have been barred from returning to Mauritania since 1989-90, when the Mauritanian government expelled tens of thousands of persons it considered to be noncitizens. The refugees, predominantly ethnic Peuls who are traditional herders, were considered largely self-sufficient in Mali. They received modest amounts of non-food assistance from UNHCR, plus supplementary food items. Four primary schools and two health clinics serviced the population. n

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