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Ukraine gets the attention. This country's crisis is the world's 'most neglected'

About 2 million people in Burkina Faso have been displaced during the current conflict, including these individuals in Gampela, who fled jihadists' attacks.
Issouf Sanogo
AFP via Getty Images
About 2 million people in Burkina Faso have been displaced during the current conflict, including these individuals in Gampela, who fled jihadists' attacks.

The world's worst displacement crisis might appear to be in Ukraine, where the war with Russia has forced some 6.5 million people to leave their homes in search of a new place to live within the country – in addition to the 7.8 million Ukrainians who have become refugees.

But the Norwegian Refugee Council, a prominent aid group, has another country in mind: In its annual round-up of the world's most neglected displacement crises, the NRC spotlighted the African nation of Burkina Faso.

And the emergency in Ukraine, the group believes, informs how the world has reacted to the humanitarian crisis in Burkina Faso.

When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Jessica Wanless of the Norwegian Refugee Council immediately worried about not just the suffering in Ukraine but also the ripple effects on millions elsewhere in the world.

"This time last year, we were warning that the war in Ukraine would have a devastating impact on displaced people around the world, and this year we have, unfortunately, seen that come true," says Wanless, a global media adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council and one of the authors of the new report.

As international aid groups and funders have rushed to tackle Ukraine's massive humanitarian needs, other countries have fallen further down the world's priority list, the NRC report concludes. Last year Ukraine received about 90% of the funds requested by the United Nations and its partners to cover basic needs, Wanless says. Compare that to Burkina Faso, which received only 42% of the U.N. request.

That lagging international response is one of the reasons the NRC named Burkina Faso the most neglected displacement crisis in the world. Some 2 million people there have been forced from their homes – about a tenth of the population – and many have been displaced multiple times.

"We're not saying this money should go from Ukraine to people in [other countries], but rather that, you know, the war in Ukraine has demonstrated what is possible when there is that political will, when there's global empathy for people. This should be the standard that we should reach for all crises," Wanless says.

These women were forced from their homes in the north and east of Burkina Faso. The Burkinabe people have been displaced by violence in recent years but humanitarian aid has not been sufficient as the world focuses on Ukraine, according to a new report by the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Issouf Sandogo / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
These women were forced from their homes in the north and east of Burkina Faso. The Burkinabe people have been displaced by violence in recent years but humanitarian aid has not been sufficient as the world focuses on Ukraine, according to a new report by the Norwegian Refugee Council.

A quick descent into conflict

Burkina Faso hasn't always been a major trouble spot.

"Five, seven, ten years ago, it was a country that was seen as very stable," says Marine Olivesi, advocacy manager for NRC Burkina Faso. "The rapidness with which it went from there to being now ranked the most neglected crisis, it's quite telling."

Burkina Faso's collapse into disorder happened quickly, escalating into full-blown conflict around 2018 and picking up even more speed in 2022. Militias connected to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda regularly clash with the army, vigilante groups and each other. At least 14,000 people have died, and the government has lost control of as much as half of the country's territory.

In addition to how quickly Burkina Faso unraveled, the NRC says this conflict is notable for how little attention it's receiving. The NRC uses three criteria to rank its most neglected crises: percentage of requested aid provided by outside governments and organizations, the degree of international media attention and the extent of political engagement, such as U.N. resolutions or peacekeeping missions, directed at the conflict.


By those measures, Burkina Faso has barely registered on the world's radar. The NRC report finds that media coverage of the conflict has been minimal while international political engagement is rated as "low."

International efforts to date have tended to target the military and security crisis.

"One of the challenges is that security concerns in the region continue to receive attention, but leaders must do more to address the underlying drivers of conflict while also meeting humanitarian needs in order to tackle this crisis comprehensively," Kathryn Mahoney, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said in an email to NPR.

Leonardo Villalón, professor of African studies and coordinator of the Sahel Research Group at the University of Florida, calls it a "Catch-22 – you can't deal with the long-term humanitarian issues and the underlying causes of conflict unless you have a reasonably secure situation. It requires investment" in both security and development.

A testimony: displaced four times in four years

Olivesi recalls a woman interviewed by NRC personnel in the central Burkina Faso city of Kaya, whose story shines a light on the country's current state. NPR is not using her name because of concerns that she could be targeted for speaking publicly. Sitting beneath a straw mat for shade and wearing a saffron-colored hair wrap and white t-shirt, the woman told NRC staff that she has been displaced four times in four years.

The woman said she grew up in Gasseliki, a small farming community in the north of the country. When her village was attacked in January of 2019, Now 54, she says she was forced to leave the village for the first time in her life. She and 15 members of her family, including children and grandchildren, made their way to Foubé about 60 miles away, where she got by on humanitarian assistance and odd jobs and her grandchildren could return to school.

Then in late 2021, militants attacked Foubé, killing civilians and burning down a health center run by Doctors Without Borders. Some 50,000 people fled the area, including the woman and her family. "So she has to leave that place where she was trying to rebuild her life for three years. And then she finds herself in places where there's more and more internally displaced people but [less and less] humanitarian assistance reaching these areas," says Olivesi.

The next place was Ankouma, where the woman and her family were disappointed to discover that humanitarian aid was virtually nonexistent. After two months they moved again, this time to Pensa, where aid groups were still able to reach the growing throng of displaced people. But the security situation devolved, and Pensa became isolated by nearby conflict and blockades.

"These places become kind of cut off from the rest of the country," says Olivesi. "It's been creating progressively, like, a blind spot in the humanitarian response."

The woman and her family found themselves pulling up stakes for the fourth time, heading now to Kaya, a large city in central Burkina Faso that has become a hub for displaced people. That is where NRC staff met and interviewed her, before she returned to the two-room prefabricated shelter she has been sharing with 15 relatives.

"Really, there isn't a single pain we haven't gone through," she told NRC staff.

Olivesi says the woman's journey lays bare what makes the conflict in Burkina Faso so distressing.

"The first few times, this woman was displaced by actual acts of violence and attacks," Olivesi says. "But she was displaced twice after that as a result of the lack of humanitarian assistance. She couldn't find a roof over her head. She couldn't protect her children and grandchildren. She was hoping she would find some level of assistance in these areas, but she really found nothing but more people in need."

Happening so fast 'it's a surprise'

The chaos in her home country has changed everything for Gnouinabe Viviane Paré Nabié, a Burkinabe who works for Jhpiego, an NGO affiliated with Johns Hopkins University.

"it's like in a movie or in a film – we couldn't imagine how things [could break down] so fast," she says. "We cannot understand why people suddenly turn their back against their brothers. So it's a surprise for myself and for other people in Burkina Faso."

Paré Nabié, a gender and sexual health specialist, says her job used to be about supporting and educating women and children, but that has morphed as the situation in Burkina Faso has become more desperate.

"I used to gather women and just talk about their lives and sexual and reproductive health," she says. "But now I have to talk about [physical] insecurity. I have to talk about gender-based violence, how they can ask for support, for example, in terms of police, in terms of justice."

Paré Nabié now works with both "host communities" and the displaced people who are seeking refuge there. She still focuses on women and children's health, but now she has to address their basic needs such as malaria prevention and malnutrition. And because the population is so fluid, Pare says she's constantly trying to provide care that people can take with them, such as bed nets to ward off malaria-carrying mosquitoes or birth control.

"So we have a lot of things to do," she says. "It's not a single problem. It's the combination of problems."

A hidden crisis

One thing that makes the displacement crisis in Burkina easy to ignore, the NRC says, is how different it looks from other, more familiar conflicts. It might not be obvious to a visitor that a given community is straining under an influx of displaced people.

"We have this image in the Middle East of massive displacement camps and so on, and you don't have that in Burkina. It's much harder to visualize displacement because the displaced tend to just, you know, pitch a tent or share a house with relatives or friends. This absorption within host communities made it less easy to detect from a foreign eye," Olivesi says.

And yet as humanitarian assistance has fallen behind the growing needs, many host communities have exhausted their own resources.

"You have a city like Kaya that's just doubled its size, if not more, within just two, three years. It's not a city that was meant to have a water system or an education system [for so many people]," Olivesi says. In 2019 Kaya had about 120,000 residents. Three years later, the United Nations estimated the city was hosting about 150,000 internally displaced people.

Attacks by non-state armed groups have left much of the country essentially cut off, with civilians, aid workers and even the government unwilling to brave dangerous roads.

In much of the country aid can only be delivered by helicopter, but Olivesi says even that lifeline has grown more tenuous. The largest helicopters – American-made Chinooks – are in short supply, with two redeployed in May to fight fires in Turkey.

"We've gone from having three of these cargo helicopters to one cargo helicopter. And with 900,000 people that are only reachable by helicopter, clearly, if you do the math, that's not enough."

The NRC report warns that food insecurity has reached crisis levels. In one city, Djibo, the NRC says that in late 2022, up to 85% of families' meals consisted of foraged leaves.

A 'vicious cycle' of neglect

Burkina Faso is among the "youngest" crises highlighted by the NRC in its report. Others, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (second on the list and number one the year before), have been simmering for years or decades. The NRC sees a warning in the longevity of crises – what they refer to as a "vicious cycle of international political neglect, limited media coverage, donor fatigue and ever-deepening humanitarian needs."

Leonardo Villalon of the Sahel Research Group says on his most recent visit to Burkina Faso, he was struck by how deep the conflict had set in.

"Once things degenerate to a certain point, the social fabric and the networks of support degenerate too. The sense of resilience is destroyed," he says. "That was my worry when I traveled there earlier this year. Unfortunately, I think we might already be there in Burkina. There's still a window of opportunity for some kind of intervention, but it's getting more difficult every day."

The NRC's Wanless says she still sees reasons for hope.

"You can see here that despair has not yet become entrenched. And we see that there is an opportunity for the world to do more to end the suffering in Burkina Faso before it ends up as one of these protracted crises, on the very long list of countries around the world who are just stuck in cycles of despair," Wanless says.

The report appeals to humanitarian groups to invest "in-country," especially in seasoned leaders and infrastructure. It urges them to broaden their advocacy efforts and find new donors, as well as expand access to the country for journalists and observers.

Ultimately, Wanles says, it requires popular and political will.

"This neglect is not an accident. It's not inevitable. It's a choice. So we can choose to end this neglect," she says.

Viviane Paré Nabié, the Burkinabe health worker, is grateful for any progress in raising the world's awareness. But she also says the message needs to reach her countrymen in Burkina Faso – a nation whose name translates roughly to "land of the honest men."

"I'm really surprised about what is going on in my country," she says. "I think we need to come back to our country's name: 'le pays des hommes intègres.' In French that means the country of honest people. That's the meaning of Burkina Faso. So where is our honesty currently? Honesty from the Burkinabe people and honesty from the international community?"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gabriel Spitzer
Gabriel Spitzer (he/him) is Senior Editor of Short Wave, NPR's daily science podcast. He comes to NPR following years of experience at Member stations – most recently at KNKX in Seattle, where he covered science and health and then co-founded and hosted the weekly show Sound Effect. That show told character-driven stories of the region's people. When the Pacific Northwest became the first place in the U.S. hit by COVID-19, the show switched gears and relaunched as Transmission, one of the country's first podcasts about the pandemic.