Responses Fall Short as Violence Displaces More Nigerians

Emmanuel Ali Talka and family members reside at the Minawao refugee camp after fleeing Boko Haram violence in Nigeria. Minawao, Cameroon, February 20, 2015. (Stringer/Reuters/Corbis)

Earlier this week, reports surfaced of the terrible conditions facing Nigerian refugees in Cameroon’s Minawao refugee camp. The refugees reported arming themselves with “bows and arrows and makeshift rifles” and fleeing their homes to avoid being slaughtered by the extremist group Boko Haram. They crossed into Cameroon only to face hunger and thirst.

The Minawao camp, which opened in July 2013, is not far from the border with Nigeria and has swollen in recent weeks. Officially, there are 42,000 refugees living there, but residents estimate there are likely an additional 10,000 in the camp who are undocumented. While certainly alarming, the Minawao situation only alludes to the enormity of the displacement crisis facing Nigeria and neighboring countries.

Exact estimates of how many people Boko Haram has displaced are difficult to obtain, particularly since the majority of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees are not in official camps. However, it is clear that over a million Nigerians have fled their homes in response to the insurgency so far.

It could also get worse: the recent uptick in Boko Haram’s activities near Maiduguri, targeting markets through the use of suicide bombers, has likely accelerated the flow of Nigerians fleeing Borno State. The renewed violence poses an immediate challenge to new Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, whose initial response has involved moving the military command from the capital Abuja closer to the areas most under threat.

The task of caring for those who have been displaced by Boko Haram will likely prove to be as difficult as suppressing the insurgency; immediate humanitarian assistance must be complemented by longer-term integration and livelihood-generating programs. Unfortunately, there seems to be less international will to provide support for these humanitarian efforts than to lend military aid.

The overarching attitude of those responsible for caring for these IDPs and refugees, shared by the displaced themselves, is that their condition is temporary, pending the military defeat of Boko Haram. Minawao officials have reportedly been issuing birth certificates to the more than 40 children born in the camp each month. United Nations High Commission on Refugees Associate Reporting Officer Djerassem Mbaiorem said this is a way of ensuring that the refugee children will be granted civil rights when they return to Nigeria.

Military success alone will not be sufficient to ensure the return of those who fled northeast Nigeria. The problems facing refugee and displaced populations are not temporary. The International Displacement Monitoring Centre reports that 90% of the IDPs the organization works with around the world have been displaced for 10 years or more. This means longer-term integration strategies are necessary. Failing to promote school enrollment or educational assistance to displaced refugee children from Nigeria will produce a lost generation; failing to promote employment and productive engagement for adult refugees will similarly render these communities even more vulnerable.

The refugees in Minawao, while reporting that they are “grateful to the UN for [the] camp” expressed frustration at the lack of access to food, water, and medicine. The camp has limited permanent structures, and is instead a collection of tarpaulin-draped shelters that will provide little protection in the rainy season.

Available data suggest that the majority of displaced Nigerians are children and women. One review of IDPs in Nigeria found that more than one in four were under the age of five. Providing care for such vulnerable populations is logistically and financially taxing, and countries playing host to these refugees are typically characterized by limited state capacity, with any relevant institutions lacking the funds necessary to provide adequate support.

UNHCR Senior Emergency Coordinator Nasir Abel Fernandes has reported that “in terms of funding, we have a lot of pledges but the contributions are not yet coming through. It comes in bits.” Fernandes estimates that while Chad is also playing host to thousands of Nigerian refugees, it has received just 3% of the funds required to provide for them.

The situation is just as dire within Nigeria’s borders. The US Agency for International Development has identified over 190,000 displaced households, accounting for nearly 1.5 million people, in the Northern region’s Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Taraba, and Yobe states.  An estimated 90% of these IDPs are not receiving official assistance, since they are not residing in displacement camps, but are rather attempting to integrate into “host communities.” This has also hampered Nigeria’s Victim Support Fund; though the fund received 80 billion Naira (402,000 USD) in pledges when former President Goodluck Jonathan launched it, only 15 billion Naira (75,000 USD) has been received.

The movement of displaced people has aggravated social tensions in Nigeria and foreign host communities and clashes between displaced communities and their hosts have often occurred. More social unrest is possible, particularly in instances when displaced people are viewed as a drain on limited resources, or as unfairly benefiting from charity or government support.

As Nigeria and its partners evaluate the most effective way to counter Boko Haram, the plight of those who have been displaced by the violence cannot be relegated to the back-burner of policy deliberations. Failing to design and implement longer-term integrative programs will only give rise to more violence and suffering for this vulnerable population.

Hilary Matfess is a researcher at the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University, Washington, DC.