by Kunle Sanni,
The number of refugees from North-West Nigeria seeking safety in the neighbouring Niger Republic has doubled to over 40,000 persons over the last ten months, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has said.
The refugees are those displaced by violence in states in the North-west and are separate from the tens of thousands displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-east.
In a report published on its website on Friday, the UNHCR spokesperson, Babar Baloch, said on September 11 alone, more than 2,500 people fled when civilians were targeted by armed groups in Sokoto, Zamfara, and Katsina.
PREMIUM TIMES in May reported how the UN announced that about 20,000 Nigerians living in the region were seeking refuge in the Niger Republic as a result of the on-going killings and kidnap for ransom crises in Nigeria.
The humanitarian group also said it was working with authorities in the Niger Republic to provide basic assistance and register the new arrivals of Nigerian refugees.
According to the UN, the violence by armed groups in North-western Nigeria has led to a new humanitarian emergency in Niger’s border regions ”with Nigeria, many of them women and children moving to more than 50 villages in Guidan Roumji, Guidan Sori and Tibiri of the Niger Republic.
”On September 11 alone, more than 2,500 people fled when civilians were targeted by armed groups on the Nigerian side. As the security situation continues to deteriorate in Sokoto State, we are expecting more refugees to arrive in Niger.
”People are seeking safety from indiscriminate attacks unleashed by organised armed groups on men, women and children alike. There have been frequent reports of kidnappings, torture, extortion, murder, sexual violence and destruction of houses and property.
“Fleeing villagers report the attackers to be well-equipped and well organized, and that some refugees have been chased over the border into Niger. Some village chiefs in Niger are also reported to have been targeted and killed by the armed groups.”
According to the UN statement, a 14-year-old refugee told UNHCR that attackers killed more than 50 people in her village, including her family members.
The minor whose name was not mentioned in the release, said her father and two young sisters, aged three and four, were also shot dead, while her five-year-old brother was killed with a machete. Attackers stole all her family’s belongings.
To address the violence, the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) launched operation “Tsaftan Daji” (Clean Forest), to flush out the armed bandits in the North-West. The army also has an ongoing operation in the region.
Various state governments in the North-west including those of Zamfara, Sokoto and Katsina are also negotiating with the armed bandits and have done prisoner swaps with them. The swaps have involved the release of arrested armed bandits in exchange for tens of persons kidnapped by the bandits.
The UN refugee agency, however, restated that it is working with local authorities and its humanitarian partners to assist refugees, many of whom are arriving traumatised and with few belongings.
It said a cargo conveying tonnes of relief materials from UNHCR had landed in Niamey, the country’s capital, which would be distributed to the Nigerian refugees and their hosts in response to humanitarian needs.
The UN spokesperson also said an inter-agency refugee response plan had launched a $ 35.5 million campaign last week in order to seek more funding to support the refugees and their hosts until the end of 2019.
”UNHCR is rushing assistance to the area and registering the new arrivals with six mobile units in the border regions. We have opened a new field office and deployed emergency staff and resources to respond to humanitarian needs.
”A 747 cargo plane carrying 98 metric tonnes of relief items from UNHCR, landed in Niamey on Monday (September 23). Items were being distributed to the refugees and host communities welcoming them into their villages.
”Most refugees are in villages close to the border which are prone to incursions from armed groups. UNHCR is working with local authorities to relocate refugees to ten villages identified as being in safer locations.
”But more resources are urgently needed to support refugees and their hosts. An inter-agency refugee response plan launched this week seeks US$ 35.5 million until the end of this year. So far we have 6 per cent of the required funding.”