Sahel Crisis: Facts and How to Help

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Sahel Crisis


West Africa's Sahel region is home to some of the world's most challenged communities where families are confronted with chronic food shortages, environmental degradation, a harsh climate that brings droughts and floods, and high unemployment. From 2015 to 2020, the number of violent attacks increased eight-fold in Central Sahel. 

An unprecedented surge in violence, with more than 1,000 attacks against civilians reported in the last 12-months, has triggered a whole new level of desperation facing families in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso as well as threatening neighboring countries such as Ghana. A multitude of different armed groups have burned villagers alive, killed others with bombs and pulled men off buses to execute them by the roadside, in scores of attacks on civilians.

The violence is forcing families to flee their homes, traveling for weeks or even months, leaving everything behind and risking their lives to find safety in other areas.

Displaced people are being received in communities already struggling with limited resources. As host communities swell, food and nutrition insecurity is increasing, and access to clean living situations is becoming a significant challenge. Climate shocks such as devastating floods, continue to devastate livelihoods and communities. Flooding in 2020 destroyed homes, goods, crops, and infrastructure in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

The COVID-19 pandemic further compounded needs but also undermined community confidence in governments' ability to respond through health structures and effective governance. Indeed, social distancing policies closed markets and trade routes and exacerbated families' inability to gain access to basic services and food.

5.4 million people will struggle with food insecurity in 2021 and 14.4 million people will require humanitarian assistance


Brittany Wichtendahl

Public Relations Strategist

[email protected]



Number of Displaced People

More than 402,000


More than 1,400,000

Burkina Faso

More than 313,000


Violence in the Sahel Region

Mali Conflict

Since the uprising in Northern Mali in 2012, the security situation has gone from bad to worse as the country has been rocked by continued violence, poor implementation of a peace accord and 2 coup d'etats. Communities face multiple threats, including climate change, violent extremism, political unrest, and COVID-19 This contributes to a worsening humanitarian situation with more people being forced from their homes than ever before, and a worrying impact on vital social services, like schools and health facilities. Complicating factors, the democratically elected government was recently upended in a coup d'etat that has further imperiled the country's response to violent actors and social unrest within its borders.

Today there are more than 402,000 displaced people in Mali – overwhelmingly women and children – and 5.9 million people in need of life-saving assistance. More than 400,000 children have been affected by the closure of schools, primarily due to insecurity.

Burkina Faso Conflict

Burkina Faso has been known for its peaceful coexistence of religious groups and over 60 different ethnic groups for decades. More recently, armed groups have been trying to force division between them in an attempt to stoke violence and gain influence. The resulting conflict between communities destabilizes the region and has led to the formation of many local militias which complicate the security landscape. Deadly attacks are a near-daily occurrence in the north and east of Burkina Faso and its human toll is surging at a dramatic rate.

The number of displaced people in Burkina Faso rose ten-fold in 2019 alone, reaching a total of 1.4 million in 2021. Next year, that number will likely continue to rise. It is now the fastest-growing displacement crisis in the world, forcing more than 1.4 million people to flee their homes.

Niger Conflict

Niger continues to struggle with responding to two separate humanitarian disasters, one along the border with Nigeria and the other in the Tillabéri region. The people living in Tillabéri region, a border area with Mali and Burkina Faso, include more than 234,000 refugees from Mali and over 300,000 displaced people.  

Many people have been forced to leave their homes, some multiple times, to escape violence by armed groups and other opportunists. Most of the people who fled the violence are women, children and the elderly. To date, approximately 70 health centers have been closed due to insecurity in the region. Humanitarian and development workers have been targets and killed indiscriminately in Niger.

Impact on Children

As with most conflicts, children across the region are being affected to the greatest extent. It is estimated that they account for more than 50% of displaced people in the region. Teachers are fleeing. Classrooms are empty. Over 4,000 schools were closed because of the violence in early 2020 but all schools in the region were closed in response to COVID-19 precautions. Some schools in secure areas have reopened. Students in insecure areas are the most affected; they do not have access to virtual lessons or donor-provided lunches that are usually given out at schools. In the absence of schools or livelihoods, adolescents increasingly turn to organized crime and seek to join violent groups in exchange for payment.

Root Causes of Violence

  • Unemployment
  • Inequitable Access to Resources
  • Climate Change
  • Land Degradation
  • Disenfranchised Youth
  • Low Levels of Education
  • Limited Availability of Social Services

Ways to Stop the Sahel Crisis​

1. Scale Long-Term Development Programming
At a time when peace and stability are at increased risk, working with our partners on sustainable development programs is key to building people's self-reliance, thus empowering West Africans to live dignified lives without violence. This includes:

  • Integrate social cohesion and peacebuilding into humanitarian and development programs: Promoting dialogue between communities and supporting local Church and traditional leaders to work together are essential for establishing a more cohesive society that will decrease the chances of more conflict in the future.
  • Support economic inclusion of youth: Youth make up more than half of the Sahel population and many feel socially and politically marginalized. Empowering youth through economic and political inclusion is key to creating a peaceful and prosperous society in the Sahel.
  • Strengthen the legitimacy and role of local government and local civil society to increase sustainability and accountability: It is essential to work with local governments and civil society, including religious authorities, to rebuild trust in local and national state institutions and reignite civic participation. According to the 2016 Afrobarometer survey, 72% of Africans trust their religious leaders more than any other form of authority. Because of these strong ties to the faith community, faith-based organizations are in a unique position to provide humanitarian and development aid to even the hardest-to-reach people in need.

2. Increase Humanitarian Assistance
Given the large number of displaced persons in the Sahel and the ongoing threat of violence and instability, a bigger humanitarian response is needed to provide life-saving assistance to those who are most vulnerable. To stop future violence, we must also help people in the region provide for themselves and their families. This includes:

  • Cash transfers using mobile money,
  • Building and repairing water systems and,
  • Constructing transitional shelter

3. Engage Government Institutions
The Sahel Peace Initiative will also engage policymakers at national, regional and international levels, including advocacy for robust funding that prioritizes a holistic response and allows for a coherent transition between humanitarian and development programming.

Key Facts

  • 64.5% of the population is under the age of 25, making the youth demographic in the Sahel one of the world's largest.
  • Burkina Faso is home to the world's fastest-growing displacement crisis, with the number of people forced from their homes increasing tenfold. More than a million people are displaced today.
  • In Burkina Faso, Mali, and western Niger, the number of internally displaced persons has risen to more than 2.1 million
  • More than 4,000 schools and 150 health centers are closed across the region.
  • This year, 14.4 million people in the affected regions need urgent assistance, including 5.4 million food insecure people.

For more detailed background and policy recommendations to address the situation, you can read Peace in the Sahel: Policy Recommendations for the U.S. Government.

CRS Response

The Catholic Church of West Africa expressed an urgent need to explore how CRS and the Church can help West African communities overcome obstacles and build lasting peace.

Together, we launched the Sahel Peace Initiative to raise awareness of the crisis, advocate for change, and mobilize humanitarian and development actions to save lives in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cote d'Ivoire, and Ghana. We have also completed a conflict assessment of the Liptako-Gourma region, which borders Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger to help us better understand one part of this complex issue. This report, called Steps Towards Peace, is available for all governmental partners, private partners, donors and members of the public to review.

To date, CRS and local partners have provided more than 320,000 people in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger - both those displaced as well as families hosting them - with cash distributions, water, food, and shelter since 2019. We are also continuing our work to provide healthcare, education, and agricultural assistance like introducing new technologies, crop varieties, and techniques, as well as carrying out peacebuilding activities, all with the goal of preventing and de-escalating the humanitarian and security crises.


Which countries in the Sahel are most affected by violence?

Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cote d'Ivoire, and Ghana.

Who lives in the Sahel?

Home to about 63 million people (20.8M in Burkina Faso, 19.5M in Mali, and 22.7M in Niger), the Sahel region encompasses over 100 ethnic groups, but these groups have largely lived a peaceful coexistence. Historically, the majority of the region is Muslim, but Christians are well represented and respected across the region. Burkina Faso in particular is well known for the peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Christians.

What are the root causes of violence in the Sahel?

While many people describe the escalating conflict in the region as religious, we know that a lack of economic opportunities, poverty, and climate change are some of the real underlying causes. Terrorists and other armed groups are exploiting religious and ethnic differences to fuel a conflict.

What will stop the violence?

A military intervention can halt the violence but won't address the root causes. Beyond military action, we need to develop and support sustainable development programs, which are key to builing people's self-reliance and empowering West Africans to live dignified lives without violence. In addition, promoting dialouge between communities and supporting local religious leaders to work together is essential for decreasing the chances of conflict in the future.

What's at risk if the violence keeps spreading?

While Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali continue to be at the center of the conflict, recent attacks in cities along the borders between Burkina Faso and Benin, Cote d'Ivoire, and Ghana highlight the risks that the violence could spread throughout the West Africa region.

If the violence continues to spread, global investments and any development gains made in the region over the past decade could be set back or entirely erased. Further, the violence worsens an already dire humanitarian situation. Communities could face food shortages, civilian deaths will continue to increase, and the region could devolved into one of the largest humanitarian crises in history, stretching across upwards of 5 countries.

Can you help us to get the word out?

Follow and retweet @catholicRelief and @CRSNews on Twitter for the latest updates.

Thank you for your compassion. Your support saves lives.