Cross-border raids hinder relocation of Nigerian refugees in Cameroon

Nigerian refugees, who fled previous attacks by insurgents in north-eastern Nigeria, are asking to be moved away from the border area as quickly as possible.

Nigerian refugees find places to stay on the covered terrace of a stadium in the Cameroon town of Mora, located almost 20 kilometres from the border with Nigeria. They will be transported to Minawao camp.   © UNHCR/D.Mbaiorem

GENEVA, October 31 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Friday said it was very concerned about growing insecurity in border areas between Cameroon and Nigeria, where thousands of Nigerian refugees fleeing insurgent attacks have sought refuge in the past weeks.

"In recent days, Nigerian insurgents have launched repeated cross-border attacks from Nigerian border towns into northern Cameroon, hindering our efforts to relocate refugees from the volatile border area to Minawao camp, located some 120 kilometres away from the border," UNHCR spokesman William Spindler told journalists in Geneva.

He said that clashes broke out last Friday between insurgents and Cameroonian troops in the village of Koubougué, on the Cameroonian side, resulting in the deaths of five civilians. Koubougué is located four kilometres from the border town of Fotokol, where some 1,000 refugees are awaiting transfer to Minawao.

Cameroonian civilians are living in a state of terror due to frequent insurgent attacks, a situation that has been aggravated by the fact that the insurgents from Nigeria have reportedly started targeting civilians in Cameroon. Nigerian refugees, who fled previous attacks by the insurgents in north-eastern Nigeria, are asking to be moved away from the border area as quickly as possible.

"Recently arrived refugees say that access to Cameroon is becoming extremely difficult and dangerous as insurgents have taken control of several border towns and villages in north-eastern Nigeria," Spindler said, adding that "refugees were forced to flee on foot through the bush and crossed the Elbeid River before entering Cameroon."

Refugees have also told UNHCR field staff of being pursued by insurgents and witnessing the murder of loved ones. They say insurgents entered their villages and stole everything before burning their houses. Many refugees are traumatized. Many families have also been separated after fleeing their villages, leaving many women and children extremely vulnerable.

Two weeks ago, clashes between insurgents and the Cameroonian army in another village - Zhelevet - forced UNHCR to suspend relocation operations of about 600 refugees to Minawao.

Despite insecurity in border areas, UNHCR continues to work with local authorities to expedite the transfer of the refugees. Security permitting, further transfers will continue this week, Spindler said.

Minawao is hosting more than 16,200 refugees, with the population having nearly tripled in size in the past two months. The camp capacity is estimated at 35,000 people and further expansions are being made in order to accommodate the refugees already registered for transfer from the border and possible additional new arrivals. "With support from our partners, we are urgently stepping up efforts to improve living conditions. Despite urgent efforts to meet basic needs, the camp's facilities and services are still insufficient," Spindler said.

While some 1,370 family shelters have been made available to new arrivals, 9,000 refugees still live in community shelters. Sufficient land has been made available by the government of Cameroon for further expansion of the site. But construction of family shelters has been put on hold to allow local and refugee communities to finish harvesting before the land is commissioned for further construction of shelters.

Efforts have been made to increase the capacity of the educational facilities in the camp to respond to the growing number of refugee children arriving in the camp. The current infrastructure and school equipment remain insufficient to accommodate the 8,000 refugee children now living in Minawao. "In parallel, we have started discussions with local authorities to develop a literacy and vocational programme for adolescents who have never received a formal education," UNHCR's Spindler noted.

He added that the sudden growth in the population in a cholera-endemic area, access to water and latrines was a major concern for UNHCR and partners. In addition to the four existing boreholes on site, 10 new boreholes have been constructed, of which five are fully functional. The others will be ready in the coming days.

Refugees are receiving food rations from the World Food Programme on a monthly basis and many refugees have started cultivating crops on land around the camp. Severe acute malnutrition has decreased and the health situation overall is also stabilizing. The last cholera case was reported in September, with no new cases identified since. Additional medical capacity has been brought in, infrastructure has been expanded and referral mechanisms have been put in place.

The operational response to the Nigeria influx is coordinated by UNHCR in Yaounde at agency level and in the field by the UNHCR office in Maroua.

Djerassem Mbaiorem in Yaounde contributed to this story.