Burkina Faso's neglected refugees

Since 2019, the population of internally displaced people in Burkina Faso has increased by more than 5,000 percent, to over two million, according to government figures published in May. The primary cause of their displacement is an ongoing insurgency by jihadist militant groups, which now control nearly half of the landlocked West African country.

The situation is so dire that, in a report published on June 1, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), a humanitarian NGO, designated it as the “world’s most neglected crisis.” The war in Ukraine, says the organisation, has soaked up the vast majority of the attention and resources directed towards handling similar humanitarian crises around the world.

Meanwhile, Burkina Faso’s displaced, and threatened, population continues to grow. They face the full gamut of humanitarian peril: starvation, poor or no access to health services and education, and, in the extreme, death. In 2022, aid groups working in the country requested about US$800m to help respond to the crisis; less than half of this budget was funded, according to the United Nations.

Poverty and violence

Burkina Faso is a very poor country. With a population of 22 million, its 2022 nominal GDP per capita, a measure of annual productivity, was a mere US$825, one of the lowest in the world. Nearly half of its school-age children are out of school, and its literacy rates are some of the lowest in the world, which doesn’t bode well for its odds of developing in any meaningful manner in the near future.

To make matters, worse, in 2022, the country’s government changed hands twice through coups d’état, bringing its total tally of successful coups to nine since its 1960 independence from France. For what it’s worth, this is the highest total of any African country. The longest period without a coup was the 27-year rule of Blaise Compaoré, who himself came to power through a French-supported 1987 coup.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), a humanitarian NGO, designated it as the “world’s most neglected crisis.”

The insurgencies responsible for the present displacement crisis started in 2016, a year after Burkina Faso returned to democracy on the back of popular protests. At the beginning of that year, two jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, which had until then been mainly active in next-door Mali, carried out a terrorist attack on a hotel in the capital Ouagadougou, killing 30 people.

Over the years since, these groups have been joined by others and have wrested control of vast swathes of the dry countryside north and east of the country from the government, killing thousands and destroying property in the process. Their goals, of course, are variations on the well-worn desire to establish a sharia-run caliphate. They ban alcohol and force women to wear veils in the areas they control.

While Muslims, who make up 64% of Burkina Faso’s population according to the country’s 2019 census (only 26% are Christian), haven’t been spared the worst of the jihadist’s atrocities – they make up the majority of the displaced, after all – their effect on Christians has been particularly deleterious.


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According to Aid to the Church in Need, a Vatican-based Catholic organisation that supports persecuted and suffering Christians around the world, the jihadists have attempted to forcibly convert Christians. They have also set their sights on priests and religious nuns, whom they have run out of several sites around the country, and targeted with kidnappings. One, Fr Joël Yougbaré, who was abducted in 2019, hasn’t been heard of since.

The leaders of the two coups in 2022 cited the government’s failure to curtail the growing insecurity as their main motivation. The first, Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, overthrew second-term democratically-elected president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré on 24th January. On 30th September, he was, in turn, ousted by Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, who had himself appointed interim president.


Since the coups, however, the insurgency has only gotten worse. The greatest increases in both the jihadists’ territorial gains, as well as the number of displaced persons, have both occurred under military rule. This is despite a ramp-up in anti-jihadist operations, which have also seen the armed forces being accused of various human rights violations and downright atrocities.

France, which had had troops stationed in the country as part of its anti-jihadist operation in the Sahel since 2014, pulled out of Burkina Faso early this year, after demands by the Traore administration. After their exit, the country has drifted quite deeply into Russia’s orbit. It is widely believed that the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary group, already has a presence in the country. The government has also pursued closer ties with Iran.

These developments have contributed to the further isolation of the country, which was already under sanctions from both western powers like the United States, which suspended aid and security assistance to the country after the first coup, as well as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which suspended its membership for the same reasons.

There is no saying where things will go from here. But the human toll of the instability is as undeniable and urgent as it is neglected. And the intransigence of all concerned parties is unlikely to lead to any improvements any time soon. It seems Burkina Faso has to run aground first before anyone pays attention, if at all.


Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and a dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image credit: Pexels 

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