The plight of Nigerian Refugees and Internally Displaced continues as Boko Haram insurgency grows | HART Blog Series for World Refugee Day

22 June 2015

In this second blog post for our World Refugee Day blog series, Elisabeth discusses the consequences of increasing Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria on displacement. To view other blogs in the series, please click here. 

Daily, sometimes hourly, international media coverage reports dramatic events from northern Nigeria and beyond, including suicide attacks, destruction of villages and abduction of civilians on behalf of the Islamist militia Boko Haram. As a result of the increasing spread of violence in Nigeria’s border areas, numbers of refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs) are at an all-time high, and the country’s neighbours are coping with mass influx of Nigerians fleeing death and persecution while attempting to maintain regional stability.

With World Refugee Day being commemorated annually on the 20th June, it is of crucial importance to shed light on the plight of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians – men, women and children – who often times do not find space in the global attention paid to conflict-ridden Nigeria. Rather, mainstream media and political attention tends to centre around western concern for the spread of Islamist extremism in the region and beyond. Military operations by the recently established country coalition comprised of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Benin and Chad may cause further displacement because of their airstrikes and ground offensives in Boko Haram affected areas. HART’s partner in Bari, Kano state, is at the epicentre of destruction and suffering as a result of Boko Haram insurgency – you can read HART’s 2014 visit report here.

According to Liz Ahua, UNHCR Regional Representative for West Africa, the majority of Nigerian refugees left their hometowns because of exorbitant levels of insecurity, violence and the threat that persists in the north and north-eastern parts of Nigeria. Boko Haram fighters continue to regularly attack villages, torturing and killing civilians and spreading fear and instability throughout the region. According to last year’s report by the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Internal Displaced Monitoring Centre, there are 3.3 million Internally Displaced People (IDPs) as a result of conflict within Nigeria, making Nigeria the country with the highest number of people internally displaced by conflict in Africa, and the third-highest globally, only Syria and Colombia having more. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) further estimates that of 300,000 civilians fleeing the north-eastern states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, more than two thirds of them were women and children, and that the majority of them have crossed the border into the neighbouring states of Chad, Niger and Cameroon.

Talking to victims of the violent conflict opens a glimpse into the despair of their situation and the uncertainty of their future. It is stories like that of Ajoshua, a 23 year old woman who fled to neighbouring Chad, who narrates how she did not even have time to put on shoes before she was forced to run for her life:

“We were too shocked to cry – we didn’t have time to cry until it was over”.

Or Zara, who had to leave behind her son who was killed when Boko Haram fighters ambushed their village:

“They came into the town shooting guns. They slaughtered people (…) They killed him,” she said matter-of-factly, making the motion of slitting a throat. “I have seen with my eyes.”

It is their stories that reveal the human costs of violent conflict and insurgency. Sadly it is often these individual human stories that are ignored and forgotten.

For most families in Boko Haram-affected areas of Nigeria, leaving their homes and becoming IDPs or, if they cross an officially recognised border, refugees is the only way of surviving. While the threats to survival from attacks, suicide bombings or kidnappings by Boko Haram are most apparent in the media, the growing insurgency is also making everyday social and economic living conditions unbearable. For example, many schools and health care facilities have been destroyed. Market places and town centres are prime targets of attacks, and consequently many people fear death by engaging in the daily activities on which they rely on for income. Therefore, a fatal combination of insecurity as well as social and economic factors threatens the livelihoods of Nigerians, leaving them no option but to flee.

While the flight from persecution, violence and fear of death often seems the beginning of a journey towards safer living conditions, the majority of refugees, in this example crossing the Nigerian border into neighbouring countries, discover that the putative safe-haven turns out to be a ‘treadmill’. This refers to the fact that living conditions for refugees in exile are often dire. The World Food Program recently reported that more than 500,000 individuals in Nigeria’s border areas, the majority of them refugees or internally displaced people, suffer malnutrition and disease. With local communities in neighbouring states already affected by large-scale poverty and insecurity, the mass influx of Nigerian refugees might fuel further conflict in the region, as competition for scarce resources for survival increases.

Rumours spread in early May that Niger allegedly deported 3,000 Nigerian refugees who sought refuge in the neighbouring state. Survivors who have witnessed the deportation told journalists last month that Niger’s military personnel forcibly evacuated towns and villages and “chased us [refugees] as if we were animals”. The Government of Niger justified the mass expulsion by referring to a recent Boko Haram attack on islands located in Lake Chad. Hence, deportation was seen as a necessary step to ensure national and human security in the area. Witnesses report that Nigerien soldiers forced the Nigerian citizens to make their way to the border by foot (a three-day journey), with at least a dozen people dying on the way due to dehydration and exhaustion. According to Nura Auwal, a survivor of the trek, a young mother of newborn twins was among those who died.

This recent event, however, is only a drop in the ocean, with the majority of Nigerian refugees in neighbouring states being trapped in a state of limbo and uncertainty. For most of them, repatriation (officially recognised as one of the three durable solutions for refugees and promoted by both the UNHCR and the international community as the preferred option) seems impossible, due to the persisting and ever increasing violence in their home country, which caused them to flee in the first place. In addition, the second durable solution – local integration in the country of first asylum – seems to be rejected by the host government. With a home government that is unable to protect them, and a host government that seems to be unwilling to do so, the future of the remaining 100 000 Nigerian refugees in Niger remains gloomy, and at best unclear.

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.


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