UNHCR chief visits Cameroon refugee camp and launches appeal

Filippo Grandi meets with Nigerian refugees driven from their homes by Boko Haram violence, and later presents funding appeal that aims to help them.

Cameroon. Filippo Grandi, UNHCR High Commissioner, visiting Minawao refugee camp

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi meets Nigerian mother Rahia and her son Adoumou, aged four, at Minawao refugee camp in Cameroon.   © UNHCR/Alexis Huguet

MINAWAO CAMP, Cameroon – Rahia and her four children still suffer from nightmares after two years in Boko Haram captivity, when they saw men and women murdered and had no idea if the children’s father was dead or alive.

Speaking in northern Cameroon to Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the 47-year-old Nigerian refugee recalled spending three weeks in a basement with scores of other women and children after being abducted in September 2013 from their village in north-east Nigeria’s Borno state.

“The Boko Haram men would threaten to cut their throats if they did not do what they wanted. They killed the women who refused to marry them,” said Rahia, who came to Cameroon’s sprawling Minawao camp after being freed by the Nigerian military last year.

“My husband, who had been in hiding, joined us in the camp. But it took a while before the children could get over the trauma. They were saying to their father: 'Daddy, Daddy, you are a man and you need to leave now, they are going to kill you. They are going to cut your throat,'” she told Grandi.

"Boko Haram men would threaten to cut their throats if they did not do what they wanted."

The High Commissioner is visiting the region to highlight the displacement crisis in the Lake Chad Basin and to launch a US$241 million inter-agency appeal to help some 460,000 people in Niger, Chad and Cameroon affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, including more than 183,000 Nigerian refugees.

Talking to men and women camp leaders in Minawao on Thursday, Grandi praised the strength and resilience of the refugees after suffering so much in Nigeria, where Boko Haram remains active despite improved security in the area. He vowed to keep helping them, as well as tens of thousands of Cameroonians displaced by Boko Haram.

“UNHCR and its aid partners need to continue to develop income-generation activities, especially for women, in order for them to be self-sufficient,” he said, adding: “This is what they asked of us and it should not be beyond the international community’s means to deliver.”

Grandi also praised the Cameroonian authorities for taking in so many people in need of protection after fleeing for their lives. UNHCR programmes also support local communities around Minawao, which opened in July 2013.

Chad. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi visits Baga Sola

Nigeria crisis: an appeal for help

Since the beginning of the year, some 10,000 Nigerians have arrived in the camp, mainly from Borno, which remains volatile. Grandi visited new maternity and nutrition centres as well as a school, where the children lined up in their blue uniforms to greet him. Funding shortages limit education opportunities, however, with classes overcrowded with an average 100-120 students per class. There is also a lack of qualified teachers and school material.

“There are certainly problems that need to be improved especially in terms of food, water, shelter, education. But we have several projects under way to continue to improve the living conditions for the refugees,” the High Commissioner pledged.

In Yaoundé, at the launch today of the 2017 Nigeria Regional Refugee Response Plan, aimed at helping hundreds of thousands of people in Niger, Chad and Cameroon, like Rahia, Grandi warned about the growing food insecurity in an area where the economy has been devastated.

The High Commissioner also urged governments to maintain asylum space despite the very challenging security situation. He emphasized the urgent need for development activities in all host countries and communities to help more people become self-sufficient.

This included providing good education to refugee and local children: “I am convinced that education is the most important investment that we have to make in the Lake Chad region now and in the future to avoid a repeat of the events and of the horrible abuses of the last years.

“Parents in the region asked us to invest urgently in the future of their children and they are right – the international community needs to invest in economic and educational opportunities, in addition to meeting immediate humanitarian needs.”

The High Commissioner will wrap up his visit next week in Nigeria, where 1.8 million people have been displaced by the insurgency. He will see for himself the area from which Rahia and tens of thousands of other refugees have come. Further improvements in security and development investments are required to enable the conditions needed for their safe return.