From AHMED OBAFEMI in Maiduguri, Nigeria
MAIDUGURI, (CAJ News) – ALREADY famished and ravaged by terror afflicting the region, northeast Nigeria has lurched into more catastrophe following the return of thousands, voluntarily and forcibly, from neighbouring Cameroon where they had sought refuge from the Boko Haram sect.
Since April, the Central African country, has been repatriating Nigerian refugees, contrary to the agreement it signed with its western neighbour and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for the voluntary return of the refugees.
The tripartite agreement signed by the two countries and the UN agency is a legal framework setting out the modalities for the voluntary return of the thousands of refugees to their country of origin in safety and dignity.
An estimated 85 000 Nigerians have fled the deadly conflict perpetrated by the Boko Haram terror group and found sanctuary in Cameroon.
The Nigerian military has reported initially, 1 000 people have been arriving weekly from Cameroon.
Aid agencies working with refugees in both countries have also reported the military had been returning Nigerians back to their country despite the threat the Boko Haram still poses in spite of the military making inroads against the militants.
However, some of the returns have been voluntary as the Nigerian military drives out militants from the areas they had taken control of, forcing the locals to flee their homes.
Others are also leaving Cameroon on their own for fear of being forcibly pushed back.
Last Monday, 2 248 people arrived in the Nigerian town of Banki on 11 trucks from Cameroon’s Minawao refugee camp.
Aid organizations are expecting more refugee returnees to arrive in Banki in the next few days.
This exodus of Nigerian refugees from Cameroon has triggered a new humanitarian crisis in a region that is already struggling to cope with a plethora of challenges. Towns and aid agencies struggle to cope with pressure.
The Norwegian Refugee Council has warned tensions are rising where refugees have returned from the areas they had been displaced from to find their homes occupied by other people.
The agency said tensions rose in communities as people often returned to discover their houses occupied and they no longer had the means to rebuild their lives.
“They find themselves displaced once again,” said Cheick Ba, NRC’s director in Nigeria.
“They are left homeless and extremely vulnerable, on top of the tension created between them and the new occupants of their homes.”
The influx back to Nigeria is also tipping the food crisis closer towards famine. Over 7 million are food insecure.
“Northeast Nigeria is ill-prepared for so many people returning back,” said Ba.
Another town bearing the brunt is Pulka.
Thousands are leaving Banki, the point of arrival from Cameroon, to go back to Pulka where they had previously fled.
Last Saturday, about 1 300 individuals arrived in Pulka from Banki, escorted by the Nigerian Armed Forces.
The new arrivals in Pulka is in addition to the 1 339 persons who arrived unannounced from Banki the previous Monday, also with military escort.
This brings the current population in Pulka to about 24 000 people.
According to experts, the available water supply can only adequately accommodate some 17 000 people and possibilities of increasing the water supply are extremely limited. Neither Bama nor Pulka site can currently absorb further population movements or displacements without further expansions to existing camp sites.
“Additionally, the security situation in the areas remains volatile,” said a spokesperson of the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Some 10 000 locals from Pulka are among 42 000 displaced persons settled in Banki, but ready to return home and restart their livelihoods.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)/Doctors Without Borders said the people displaced from Cameroon were vulnerable, often in a poor state of health and almost entirely dependent on aid.
“These people face growing needs for shelter, food and water,” said Gabriel Sánchez, MSF’s operational manager for Nigeria.
“If this is not addressed and people continue to arrive, the situation will quickly deteriorate even further,” Sánchez warned.
The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) parastatal nonetheless said it had “perfected” arrangements to move Nigerian returnees from Cameroon.
On Africa Day, it facilitated the return of 270 Nigerians including elderly persons, mothers and children.
“NEMA and other security agencies have been collaborating in ensuring the safety, comfort and movement of returnees to their respective states,” said Hafeez Mohammed Bello, the northeastern region’s NEMA public relations officer.
The two respective governments were said to be addressing the issue of repatriation of the Nigerians from Cameroon, in consultation.
The Boko Haram terror group has killed more than 20 000 civilians and displaced over 2 million since it perpetrated its insurgency from 2009. The insurgent group has expanded its attacks to Cameroon, albeit at a lower scale.
– CAJ News
From AHMED OBAFEMI in Maiduguri, Nigeria