There are now more returnees and refugees in Niger’s southeastern region of Diffa near the border with Nigeria than there are Malian refugees in western Niger, straining host populations who are already some of the poorest people in the world, and the local authorities.
According to UNHCR, some 40,000 people have taken refuge in Diffa Region following an upsurge in Boko Haram violence in Nigeria. Others have fled to Cameroon and Chad.
“The number of refugees who arrive here goes up nearly every day,” said Mamouni Hawna, head of Afnori neighborhood in Diffa town. “But even as we speak, no one has benefited from aid.”
The World Food Programme (WFP) country director in Niger, Benoit Thiry, said the numbers are “worrying”. “We are very concerned with the enormous pressure the situation is putting on the host community, which is already food insecure.”
There are currently no refugee camps in Diffa Region so host families across 21 villages have taken in people. Many of the arrivals are women who have lost their husbands, or children who have become separated from their parents, according to Hawna. Their first priority is to find shelter and food.
Local populations are already extremely vulnerable, facing many risks, including chronic drought and flooding, combined with deep poverty, indebtedness, poor basic services, poor roads and high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition. Poor harvests in 2013 mean food stocks are low and have already disappeared in many households.
“The population in Diffa Region was already quite vulnerable, even before the refugees arrived,” UNHCR team leader in Diffa, Mahamadou Guidé Amadou, said. “Now, you have two or three families living in one household, trying to share a single meal. It’s troubling.”
WFP is providing food assistance to refugees and local populations, increasing its caseload to 25,000 people, but its head said “resources are very constrained, and with the hunger season approaching, we need funds to be able to assist these vulnerable people.” It also gives nutritional help to children aged up to 23 months and pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and it hopes to expand a cash voucher scheme to refugees and hosts as of September.
UNHCR has been leading the response coordination with the government and other partners. All involved parties are doing their best to ensure that arriving refugees get access to the assistance they require and deserve. So far, aid agencies have distributed basic necessities, such as sleeping mats, soap, cooking utensils, bottled gas, water purification tablets and medication, as well as food aid.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has installed pumps to supply an estimated 12,000 families with access to potable water in Bosso in southeast Niger. Up until now, people have been relying on river water. The organization is also delivering monthly food aid and other basic necessities to 1,400 households each month, and is training local doctors to deal with any violence-related injuries, as well as working with partners to educate communities on proper health and hygiene.
International relief NGO Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED) in Diffa, says it has begun collecting cartography information via smartphones to create an interactive map of all the villages where there are refugees. This will include mapping out the location of schools and health centres, as well as identifying the most vulnerable among the refugees, so that aid agencies can prioritize their response. It will also help with documentation.
Community Action Committees have been set up throughout Diffa to welcome refugees and returnees, act as a liaison between them and the authorities, and ensure they are all documented. Despite these efforts, many say that enough aid has not yet arrived.
“We have many women here with young children,” said Mamadou Bako, mayor of Bosso, the population of which has doubled due to returnees and refugees. “They still have no shelter of their own. They rely on our host families for food and clothing. Our food [stocks] are starting to run low. There needs to be more help here,” he said.
In Diffa town, head of Afnori neighbourhood Hawna told IRIN: “The NGOs were here in the beginning to try and help us, but many more [refugees] have arrived since then, and there are many problems because they haven’t been officially registered.” This is particularly true of refugees and returnees in Diffa town, as opposed to those who fled to Nigerien villages just across the border.
Along with the Red Cross (both foreign and local chapters), UNHCR has started to construct semi-durable shelters made of traditional materials for displaced people.
They are also working on land ownership issues to see how land might be redistributed once returnees and refugees start to build their own homes. UNHCR’s Amadou told IRIN he hopes to see some of the refugees move onto their own parcels of land by the end of May or early June.
Bako said housing was the priority. “For many months now, the refugees have been living with our local families. These families have welcomed them, but it is not easy. It cannot go on like this forever.”
Aid workers say people just need to be patient. “It has been difficult to reach all the people that need assistance,” said ACTED’s project director in Diffa, Abdourahame Idi Issa. “But I can assure you that all the actors involved have been doing their best… There are many challenges in this situation.”
In December, Niger granted temporary refugee status to some of the Nigerians who had fled the violence. But months later, many have still not been officially documented.
In February 2014 a campaign was launched to register the refugees but logistical challenges delayed its start and biometric registration will now begin in May for both Nigerian refugees and Nigerien returnees.
As of mid-April, the official count showed 75 percent of the displaced are returnees - Nigeriens who had been living in Nigeria and have now fled back across the border. Officials say both numbers might actually be much higher.
“Someone can arrive at a household [in Diffa] from Nigeria and spend many days there before we even know they have arrived,” Guidé Amadou, told IRIN. This means a refugee can sometimes go weeks without receiving assistance.
“This is made even more difficult by the fact that Diffa is a region that is quite difficult to access,” he said. “The terrain is difficult, and so yes, we’re based here, but there are some villages that are hundreds of kilometers away [from the field office]. Some [villages] aren’t even accessible by road.”
Guidé said Diffa’s proximity to Nigeria and the porous nature of the border also make it hard to keep track of who is newly arrived. “We are used to working with a [refugee] camp approach. But here, we are dealing with a very large surface area with refugees spread out. So it complicates the logistics and our operations.”
Documenting the refugees has also been difficult because officials say many Nigeriens have been trying to pass themselves off as Nigerian. “Some people misrepresent themselves, so it’s hard to be exact. When they flee, they are afraid to say who they really are. So it complicates the problem.” Authorities say it is often hard to distinguish Nigerians from Nigeriens in this region.
“They’re practically the same people. They speak the same language; they practice the same religion; they have the same culture. So it’s basically the same family," Guidé said.
While there have been no major security incidents in Niger since mid-February, and none so far in Diffa, the security situation remains uncertain and many people living in border villages are frightened.
A number of incidents, including an attempted kidnapping of officials, and the seizure of arms and arrests of militants, suggest the extremist organization Boko Haram may be using southeast Niger as a base and a potential target, according to Reuters. A government official in Diffa said the area was on the “frontline” of terrorism.
ACTED’s Issa said aid agencies are on the alert for new arrivals. “Each time there is an attack, it is certain more refugees will come, and their zone of refuge will likely be Diffa Region,” he told IRIN. “So not only must we help those who have already fled the violence, but we must also prepare to help those that may soon flee.”