Nigerian Islamist Boko Haram militias have driven nearly 90,000 people into neighbouring Niger’s impoverished Diffa Region this year, sparking food security and protection worries.
The September-November harvest season has been favourable across Niger except in Diffa, where food insecurity is a concern especially for displaced and poor families. “The real problem in the long-run is food insecurity,” said Karl Steinacker, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Niger representative.
“This [Diffa] is a food-deficient region even during normal times. The arrival of this population is going to increase the difficulty,” he told IRIN.
The Nigerien government on 10 December appealed for “national and international solidarity” to tackle what it termed as a “true humanitarian crisis”.
The influx has gradually increased over the months as Boko Haram stepped up its bloody campaign. An average of 7,000 people crossed into Niger every month since January, but from August to date, 10,000-30,000 people have fled every month. Around 15,000 people fled into Niger following the 24 November attack on the northeastern Nigerian town of Damasak.
Following the attack, the population of displaced people in Diffa’s Gagamari area (a makeshift refugee site) rapidly rose from 3,000 to 17,000 in less than a week, according to figures from the government appeal.
Around 53 percent of Diffa’s 590,000 residents are food insecure; a fifth of the children are malnourished; 35 schools have been closed, and others occupied by the new arrivals; and pasture is reducing.
The influx and tough local conditions have “placed the refugees, returnees and the local population in an extremely vulnerable situation that sums up all the conditions of a true humanitarian crisis,” the government appeal said.
Managing the rising numbers
Initially, the displaced population tended to settle within communities in Diffa, but as the numbers increased the hosts have become overstretched. The Nigerien government has now sought UNHCR’s help to establish camps at least 50km from the border.
“The majority are now refugees while in the beginning the majority were returnees. We have come to the point where refugee camps are necessary. That shows that due to the increased number of the population there is no other option,” Matias Meier, International Rescue Committee (IRC) director for Niger, told IRIN.
While harvests have been favourable in other parts of Niger except Diffa, they have not been abundant. Food insecurity levels in the rest of the country remain at IPC Phase I, meaning adequate access to food of diverse dietary quality.
In Diffa, food scarcity (IPC Phase II - stress) could trigger tensions between the local communities and the refugees, said the IRC representative. “It has not been a good year for the host population and the increased number of people has made it more difficult…
“This has been one of the main concerns as a potential for social cohesion problems. That is why the camp solution and the continued support are essential, otherwise there’s risk for social cohesion problems,” he said.
Meier explained that due to the swelling numbers, some families were moving onto islands in Lake Chad either directly from Nigeria or from their initial areas of refuge in Diffa. But insecurity is limiting assistance to those that have settled on the islands, which an estimated 20,000 displaced people have made their home.
“Insecurity is high and kidnapping of expatriates is the main concern especially for non-African expatriates. It is very difficult to stay there [in Diffa] for more than three nights so we try to limit it,” he said, explaining that IRC works with local partners to ensure aid delivery.
In late November, the Nigerien army launched military operations in Diffa where an overnight curfew has been imposed since the attack in Damasak, which lies just 35km from the Niger-Nigeria border.
The bulk of the displaced population arriving in Niger do not have IDs, making it difficult to determine who is a refugee and who is a returning national. UNHCR says that up to 82 percent of the displaced do not have any IDs.
Lack of papers not only complicates modalities of relief assistance, in the long run undocumented individuals risk harassment or detention especially given the ongoing military manoeuvres in Diffa.
“A population unable to provide documentation at the time it claims asylum might find itself unable to return to its country of origin at a later stage for the very same reasons. This puts the affected population at risk of becoming stateless,” says a UNHCR policy paper.
On 4 December, the Nigerien government decided to accord temporary refugee status to all Nigerians fleeing violence in the three worst-hit states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe.
Meanwhile, IRC’s Meier said they have noted that in recent weeks there has been an increase in the arrival of unaccompanied minors, especially youths. It is not exactly known why, but one possibility could be that they are able to escape more easily unlike older people, or because they have lost their parents in the violence.