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Wednesday, 18 January 2017 - 4:37pm

Hospitals, schools and public services in Gambia and Senegal risk being overwhelmed as children flee their homes fearing political violence.

The United Nations estimates that up to 50,000 people, mostly children and women, have already left urban centres in Gambia - with some headed to villages in other parts of the country and an estimated half crossing the border into Senegal

“These children are largely fleeing to parts of both Gambia and Senegal where public services such as health facilities and schools are already under a great deal of strain,” said Save the Children’s Senegal Country Director Bonzi Mathurin.

The latest government figures suggest that close to 26,000 people have crossed into Senegal from Gambia since the election, increasing the pressure on local communities. Save the Children is providing support to the U.N. and Senegalese government who are coordinating the distribution of food and blankets to displaced families.

“Migration between Gambia and Senegal has always been relatively fluid because often people have family members on both sides of the border,” Mathurin added.  “However, any sudden mass movement of people would simply overwhelm public services which are already struggling and raise the possibility of a humanitarian emergency.

“During any mass displacement of people children are incredibly vulnerable because they lose the protective environment of schools, family and community. There are increased risks of gender-based violence, female genital mutilation and child marriage. They are also more susceptible to life-threatening diseases such as diarrhoea and malaria when health facilities are not functioning as they should. Therefore we must ensure that all children have access to basic services throughout this difficult period,” Mathurin said.

Health facilities in Gambia are still operating but the majority of foreign doctors have left the country, increasing the strain on public medical facilities. The Gambia Medical and Dental Association says the country’s health care system would be unable to cope with any outbreak of violence.

The tensions in Gambia come towards the beginning of a year in which the incoming United Nations Secretary General asked citizens, governments and leaders to strive to overcome their differences and put peace above all else.

The charity has put contingency plans in place and is prepared to assist with aid distributions in Senegal this week. It is engaged with partners and teams in Gambia and Senegal in order to establish the areas of greatest need and to scale up assistance where necessary. Save the Children’s partners in Gambia have been forced to put vital child protection work on hold until the security situation returns to normal.

Some schools in Gambia due to have reopened on 9th January remain closed and many parents are too afraid to allow their children to attend those that remain open. Many schools are advising parents to keep their children at home until further notice. A number of Gambian children have enrolled in Senegalese schools but will be required to learn in French instead of the English spoken in Gambian schools.

Save the Children has spokespeople available in Senegal. For more information or to request an interview please contact Mike Sunderland on +221 77 155 9234 or mike.sunderland@savethechildren.org / or the out of hours on call number +44 7831650409