UNICEF says the number of children at extreme risk has doubled since 2020 as armed groups continue to spread violence in the region.
Ten million children in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are in urgent need of humanitarian aid as a result of the escalating conflict.
In a report released Friday, the United Nations Children’s Organization said nearly four million more children are at risk in neighboring countries as hostilities between armed groups and national security forces cross borders.
“Children are increasingly entangled in armed conflict as victims of intensifying military clashes, or targets of non-state armed groups,” said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa.
“The year 2022 was particularly violent for children in the central Sahel. All parties to the conflict must urgently stop attacking children as well as their schools, health centers and homes.”
The central Sahel has been plagued by instability since ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda-affiliated armed groups began to struggle for power.
The violence, which first took root in Mali after a 2012 uprising in the north of the country, has since spread across the Sahel and reached West African countries. Attacks have also led to tensions between communities, due in part to intense climate change.
‘Severe food insecurity’
Armed groups vying for supremacy and control over resources have caused more than 18.6 million people in the region to experience “severe food insecurity” – an increase of 5.6 million since the end of June 2022.
Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria have been hardest hit, according to Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ report released in January. About 6.3 million people are displaced in the Sahel, an increase of 300,000 since June.
UNICEF’s report highlighted that the number of children at risk has doubled since 2020. Three times as many children were killed in Burkina Faso in the first nine months of 2022 as in the same period in 2021, according to UN data.
“Most of the children died from gunshot wounds during attacks on their villages, or as a result of improvised explosive devices or explosive remnants of war,” the report said.
The report highlights how armed groups operating in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger blockade towns and villages, sabotage water networks, oppose state-run education, burn and loot schools, and threaten, kidnap or kill teachers.
“More than 20,000 people in the border region between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger will be in catastrophe-level food insecurity by June 2023,” the report said. “More than 8,300 schools in the three countries have been closed because they were directly targeted.”
Violence in the central Sahel has spread to the northern border regions of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo – an area already suffering from scarce infrastructure and resources.
Poirier called for an “urgent” and “strengthened” humanitarian response, saying the crisis in the central Sahel and neighboring countries also required flexible long-term investment in resilient social services that will help create a better future for children.