Some time this summer, likely in late July or early August, Burkina Faso hit a tragic milestone: over 1 million people internally displaced. On August 8, the governmental National Council for Emergency Relief (Conseil National de Secours d’Urgence et de Réhabilitation, CONASUR, under the Ministry of Social Action and National Solidarity) presented the latest figures, which stand at 1,013,234. As I am far from the first to observe, Burkina Faso has a population of roughly 20 million – meaning that roughly 4% of the people are currently displaced. And that must mean, once you factor in the burden on host communities, the economic impacts of displacement, and other consequences, that a much wider swath of the population – everyone, perhaps one could argue – is at least indirectly affected now.
Observers have predicted for months now that Burkina Faso would cross this threshold some time in 2020, so when measured against forecasts in, say, April or even January 2020, this outcome is not surprising. But it’s worth stepping back to emphasize just how rapidly the situation deteriorated. As so often, José Luengo-Cabrera has a graphic:
Things have really collapsed in 2019 and 2020. As you can see by going back to reports from early 2019, a real confluence of events just devastated the north of the country. Here is a UNICEF report from April 2019:
The number of internally displaced persons has unprecedently increased, mostly in Sahel and Centre-Nord regions, due to increased attacks by violent extremist groups, coupled with inter-community clashes (Yirgou in early January and Arbinda early April). Access to the emergency-affected zones by the humanitarian actors is rapidly decreasing, undermining timely scale-up of humanitarian assistance.
It is worth highlighting, too, the geography of the displacement: the conflict in the eastern part of the country is extremely serious, but it is the north where displacement is concentrated – as of August 8, it was the Sahel and Center-North Regions that together hosted more than 730,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Burkina Faso’s 2006 census is obviously out of date, but it’s worth noting the figures it gives for the populations of the Sahel and Center-North Regions: 970,000 and 1.2 million, respectively. Even if we assume substantial population growth since then, we can probably still also assume that IDP populations of over 300,000 in each region have a huge impact on lives, livelihoods, and economies in those regions.
Burkina Faso also hosts some 20,000 refugees, many of them Malian (July 2020 figures from UNHCR).
The displacement compounds and interacts with other issues. Here I’ll mention just two, and very briefly. The first is food insecurity, which affects over 2 million people. Here is an excerpt from FEWS Net’s July report:
As a result of the deteriorating security situation, large-scale herders have left the area. As a result, collectors have difficulty accessing local markets for livestock collection. This has led to the supply of animals decreasing in main markets. In Dori and Djibo [two key northern towns], for example, the decline is 14 and 23 percent respectively for small ruminants and 20 and 30 percent respectively for large ruminants.
The second issue is election preparations – how can Burkina Faso hold representative elections (presidential and legislative) less than three months from now (first round, November 22)? Even if the displacement ended this month, it would be extremely difficult to resettle and/or ensure the franchise for the 1 million already displaced. Moreover, the trend lines are so bad that it’s easily possible that another 100,000 or more could be displaced by November.
For further context, as of January 2013 when France intervened in northern Mali, the total displacement figure (IDPs and refugees) was around 370,000 (see here, pp. 6-7). The comparison needs to be put in context: population densities are much, much lower in northern Mali than in northern Burkina Faso. Nevertheless, the comparison helps underscore how big the 2020 displacement crisis in Burkina Faso really is.