07/05/2012 12:01 pm ET Updated Sep 04, 2012

Refugee Host Communities Must Not Be Forgotten

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

"They are our brothers and sisters. They need our help and we will share with them what we have." This was the common refrain I heard from communities living just across the Malian border, where refugees have been arriving since Mali's Tuareg rebellion began in late January.

Last month I traveled to remote areas of Burkina Faso and Niger, where tens of thousands of Malians have sought refuge. These semi-desert areas are also among those hardest hit by a food crisis that has affected some 18 million people across the Sahel. As evidenced by the quote above, host communities have been open and welcoming to those fleeing violence and instability in Mali. But with little to spare in these lean times, their ability to help their Malian neighbors is extremely limited.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and its partners are ramping up their aid operations across the Sahel, but the need far outweighs the available resources. As of mid-June, UNHCR estimated that it had only received 13 percent of the money it needs to meet the refugees' basic needs through the end of the year. Donors clearly must increase their support to the refugee response. But they cannot forget the impact new arrivals are having on local populations in neighboring countries which are themselves facing severe poverty and food insecurity.

In markets throughout this remote region, the cost of food was alarmingly high even before the Malian crisis. The added demand from the new arrivals has caused prices to increase even more. Many refugees also brought their livestock with them (upon which they depend for both food and income), straining limited local supplies of water, animal feed, and pasture land. Furthermore, refugee families have driven up demand for firewood, which is so scarce that women and children in parts of Niger now spend up to three hours per day trying to gather enough.

Several of the agencies now assisting refugees were already working to address the Sahel's food crisis, and they are well aware that local populations must be helped. For example, several agencies have tried to make improved health clinics available to both refugees and their hosts, rather than building separate clinics for refugees only. In several host communities, local schools also have integrated a limited number of refugee children. And in some areas, fuel efficient cook stoves are being introduced to reduce the need for firewood.

These and other efforts aimed at maintaining peaceful coexistence between refugees and the wider community should be strongly encouraged. But they cannot continue unless the U.S., Europe, and other donors provide more funding and ensure that aid for refugees does not come at the expense of their vulnerable hosts.

In the struggling town of Abala in Niger, about 10,000 local residents are now living next to more than 9,000 refugees. Initially, the World Food Programme was making deliveries to both refugees and the locals. At the time of our visit, however, the agency could only provide food for the most vulnerable local households -- and there are concerns that the deliveries may soon be cut off all together.

In short, assisting host communities must be a central component of the refugee response in the Sahel. Vulnerable local households should be given access to distributions of water, food, and cash. Fuel-efficient cook-stoves should also be provided to all refugee camps so that demand for firewood does not further damage the already-fragile environment. Finally, UNHCR and other agencies must ensure that services like health clinics and schools are both opened up to refugees and given enough resources to meet growing demand.

Communities throughout the Sahel have opened their arms to Malians fleeing insecurity at home, often at great personal cost. Now it's time for the international community to do its part.