The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has issued an urgent appeal for $186 million to provide lifesaving protection and assistance in the Sahel amidst fears that the conflict in the vast African region – exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic – will spread.

The appeal, issued Friday in Geneva and Dakar, calls for $97 million in initial requirements for this year, $29 million to implement COVID-19 prevention and response measures in displacement areas, and $60 million to scale up UNHCR’s emergency response as part of its Sahel strategy.

‘Horrifying violence’: Grandi

“The emergency in the Sahel is a humanitarian and protection crisis of major proportions, where horrifying violence against vulnerable populations is becoming endemic,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“The risk of spillover of the conflict into neighbouring coastal countries is very real and now exacerbated by COVID-19,” Mr Grandi added.

UNHCR puts the number of refugees, internally displaced persons, returnees and people at risk of statelessness in the Sahel at 3.1 million.

In Burkina Faso alone, the number of IDPs has more than quadrupled in less than a year, from 193,000 in June 2019, to 848,000 at the end of April amid escalating violence.

For those who have fled wars and persecution – and for host countries accommodating them – the coronavirus outbreak is having a devastating impact on what is mostly a hand-to-mouth existence, according to the refugee agency.

“We need to scale up with a comprehensive and inclusive response that places the rights and well-being of millions of displaced people at the heart of what we do,” Mr. Grandi said. “We must act before it is too late.”

Friday’s appeal complements other efforts by the UN and partners to galvanize financial and political support for the humanitarian response in the Sahel, UNHCR said.