Women stand in line for a distribution of relief items at Dalori camp in Maiduguri, Nigeria. Credit: OCHA/Jaspreet Kindra, May 2015.

Africa’s fastest-growing displacement crisis

Violence by Boko Haram in the region around Lake Chad has forced 2.5 million people from their homes. And counting. The humanitarian response to this crisis is strained at the seams.

United Nations OCHA
Oct 5, 2015 · 6 min read

Boko Haram-related violence has forced 2.5 million people from their homes across Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, turning it into Africa’s fastest-growing displacement crisis. Governments’ measures to counteract the armed group are starting to take effect, but the humanitarian response to the crisis that the violence has caused across the region is starved of funds and strained at the seams.

Some 2.1 million people have fled within Nigeria, while around 200,000 people have sought refuge across Nigeria’s borders to an area near Lake Chad in Cameroon, Chad and Niger, which is known as the Lake Chad Basin. A further 200,000 Cameroonians, Chadians and Nigeriens are displaced within their countries. Over half of the 2.5 million displaced people are children.

Abiguel, 23, fled her Nigerian village and crossed the border into Cameroon. She found refuge in a village, but Boko Haram attacked that town as well, and she was forced to flee a second time. Her husband was killed before her eyes. She now lives in Minawao refugee camp, in Cameroon’s Far North region. Credit: OCHA / Ivo Brandau, April 2015.

The stories are horrific and horribly similar: Boko Haram arrives in the night, burns down the village and loots all the possessions, forcing families to flee in terror.

Abiguel, 23, described the Boko Haram attack on her Nigerian village: “We thought it was doomsday. They killed so many people. We ran for our lives to the border with Cameroon and came here barefooted, without anything.” Boko Haram killed her husband before her eyes. Eventually, after days of walking, Abiguel reached the border of Cameroon where she now lives in a camp.

Humanitarian teams in the region need US$400 million to save lives and help protect those most at risk, but they have received only 41 per cent of this funding requirement. Governments are doing all they can but they are struggling, said Cameroon’s External Relations Minister, Pierre Moukoko Mbonjo, at a 25 September event on the margins of the UN General Assembly. They would not ask for help unless they were desperate. “It is not in our culture in the Sahel to reach out our hands, but today we are obliged to do so,” he said.

Hosted with grace

The vast majority of the displaced people have sought refuge with host communities, who share whatever meager resources they have. Families in the Lake Chad Basin endure some of the toughest living conditions on earth. The Lake Chad Basin is in the Sahel, which is beset by cyclical drought and flooding. This means that harvests are increasingly hard to eke out as the lake has shrunk to one fifth of its former size. The region has some of the world’s highest poverty rates, while 5 million of the 30 million people affected by Boko Haram-related violence are unable to access adequate food, and over 225,000 children under age 5 are malnourished.

Families fled their home in north-east Nigeria in fear of the militant group Boko Haram. This family found refuge in local community across the border, in Niger. Credit: OCHA/Franck Kuwonu, June 2014.

This year, more than 70 per cent of farmers in areas most affected by the Boko Haram-related violence in Nigeria and Cameroon were unable to sow their crops. The violence has obstructed major roads, forcing trade in the Lake Chad Basin to plummet by 80 per cent. “The road through Abuja to Maiduguri to Cameroon and on to N’djamena is not just a road, it’s a lifeline for millions of farmers, fishermen, traders and their families,” said the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel, Toby Lanzer, at the UN General Assembly event. “And we must get that lifeline open.”

“Families who do not have enough food to feed their own children have opened their doors to the displaced, and they are hosting them with grace,” he added.

“It’s difficult to face off a group that will stop at nothing.”

Within Nigeria, the Government is shifting its approach from full-on military counter-insurgency attacks to include working with community members to form civil-defense forces, and setting up deradicalization teams to reintegrate Boko Haram members into society.

To fend off Boko Haram from cross-border incursions, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria have convened almost 10,000 troops to form a multinational joint task force to protect their borders. Their efforts, alongside those of national armies, have helped weaken the terror group, but in response to the military crackdown, Boko Haram continues to morph its tactics. It now uses more hit-and-run strikes, including using children as young as seven years old, to detonate suicide bombs in civilian locations, such as markets, mosques and train stations.

Johnny Yacubu, 45, was badly hurt during an attack on his town. He found refuge in Minawao camp, in Cameroon. “They hacked my arms and legs with machetes… I was treated at the hospital before I was brought here. But the pain has not gone away.” Credit: OCHA/Ivo Brandau, April 2015.

“If it had been an army, we would have faced down the problem and succeeded,” said the Prime Minister of Niger, Brigi Rafini, at the UN event. “But it’s an asymmetrical war and it’s taking place in the population — it can’t be easily removed.”

He added: “It is difficult to face off a group that will stop at nothing. Boko Haram just wants to kill… they will kill the elderly and they will kill children. They will bomb congregations of the faithful in mosques and they will burn churches.”

Governments overwhelmed

Facing off Boko Haram’s tactics is leaving Governments across the region overwhelmed on all fronts, says Chad’s Foreign Minister, Moussa Faki Mahamat. “Our economies are deeply destabilized and our societies are fragmenting,” he said.

The Boko Haram threat comes on top of many other pressures on all sides. He added: “To the south we have the conflict in Central African Republic, to the east there are refugees from Darfur, in the north we face trafficking of weapons and human beings, and we are on the route for the thousands of youths on the way to Europe … And now in the west we are fending off Boko Haram.”

Help must come in many forms, say politicians. But unless the social, economic and political roots of the Boko Haram crisis are dealt with, support for the group will not fade. “What’s going on in the Lake Chad Basin are deep-rooted tensions between people and their Governments; severe underdevelopment; poverty; and few economic opportunities,” said Lanzer. “…When I speak to people about their children — what do you want your son to do, become a bandit or a drug smuggler? A migrant or a people trafficker? It’s not a good set of options.”

John, Issa and Stephan peek out of their classroom at Minawao refugee camp, in Cameroon. Many children displaced inside Nigeria and refugees staying with host communities do not have access to education at all. Credit: OCHA/Ivo Brandau, April 2015.

Minister Mbonjo said that youths risk becoming radicalized if they cannot access jobs or meaningful activities. He believes that development institutions, including the African Development Bank, World Bank and European Commission, each need to play their role.

All of these efforts will take time and investment over the long term. In the immediate term, it is left to local governments, host families and humanitarians to do all they can to help. “Governments have shown great leadership in responding to humanitarian needs,” said UN relief chief, Stephen O’Brien. “But now an urgent scale-up of humanitarian response is required.”

Registration of refugees arriving from Nigeria by UNHCR at Dar-es-Salam site, in Chad. Credit: OCHA/Caroline Birch, January 2015.

Humanitarian Dispatches

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is the UN entity responsible for coordinating humanitarian action in conflict and natural disasters. We advocate on behalf of people affected by crisis and shed light on what humanitarian actors are doing to respond.

United Nations OCHA

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Humanitarian Dispatches

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is the UN entity responsible for coordinating humanitarian action in conflict and natural disasters. We advocate on behalf of people affected by crisis and shed light on what humanitarian actors are doing to respond.

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