Nigeria returnees face shelter problems, economic challenges, food shortages
As the Nigerian government continues to open up areas formerly controlled by Boko Haram and to facilitate the return of thousands of people to their home areas in the north-east, the scale of the damage is becoming more and more apparent and new humanitarian challenges are emerging.
The government has since late August facilitated the return of several thousand people from Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, to the towns of Dikwa, Konduga and Mafa. Local authorities said they relocated 1,120 people to Dikwa on Tuesday, and more movements are planned in the coming days and weeks.
Some internally displaced people in Maiduguri have made short return home visits with government assistance to assess the situation. One such group originally from Mafa told us that they were ready to return permanently as soon as the government organized another convoy with armed escorts.
Some had already decided to stay in Mafa and not go back to Maiduguri. The facilitated returns remain mainly to towns, with security in villages still highly uncertain. Returning villagers are advised to stay within 15 kms of towns.
The challenges are immense for those returning, as UNHCR found during a recent visit to the newly accessible town of Gwoza, located 150kms south-east of Maiduguri. Most of the former population of at least 300,000 people had fled to Maiduguri in 2015 and 2016 to escape Boko Haram’s eight-month rule and subsequent fighting. Today, local authorities say, 70,000 people (returnees and internally displaced from nearby villages) have returned since the city’s recapture last March.
But they have come back to a heavily damaged town (some 70% of it razed to the ground), and while the government has started to rebuild some infrastructure, including the city hospital, and organizations like UNICEF and MSF are providing health assistance, some returnees and IDPs from other areas are living wherever they can. This could cause problems in the future when more people originating from Gwoza return to find their homes occupied by strangers.
UNHCR, IOM and other partners are working with the authorities to assist on shelter issues. We are helping develop a new site for already displaced people arriving in Gwoza to seek shelter. There are three existing IDP sites in Gwoza managed by the army.
The welfare of children is also a concern. Many suffer from dehydration and malaria, though UNICEF, MSF and the military are providing health assistance. UNICEF has erected two large tents to provide classrooms, which are overcrowded with more than 130 pupils per tent. Only a few teachers have returned and soldiers are teaching some children English in Gwoza and elsewhere.
In general people told UNHCR they felt safe in Gwoza with the military present. But many are not ready to return home, and UNHCR reiterates that return should be voluntary and that people should have access to sufficient information about the situation at home so that they can make an informed decision about return. We have drafted a policy framework on returns highlighting this and are discussing it with the government and other partners and seeking support for it and its aims.
Many people in Maiduguri and newly accessible areas of Borno state told UNHCR they worry about the security situation, food shortages, continuing economic disruption, and limited access to food, water, shelter and health structures. The planting season has passed, and families fear that they will not have enough to eat, even though the government provides returnees with 25 kilos of rice, and other basic food. WFP also provides food.
Others are discouraged by the presence of land mines and improvised explosive devices, that together with insecurity on key roads have helped cripple regional trade and the economy. Some displaced women in Maiduguri told UNHCR they were afraid of going back to their home districts because of the Boko Haram presence. Some had been abducted by the insurgents in 2014 and 2015, forcibly married and held captive for months before escaping or being freed by the army.
In Maiduguri, the authorities continue to move internally displaced people from school buildings to camps: more than 4,000 people were relocated over the last week from the Arabic Teaching College to Bakassi camp, which already hosted some 17,000 people.
UNHCR continues to scale up its presence in the north-east with the deployment of additional staff (9 new staff as off September 20). We have plans to build 1,400 additional emergency shelters and distribute 2,500 shelter kits in the local government areas of Borno in the next weeks.
More than two million people have been forcibly displaced in Nigeria, including 1.87 million fleeing Boko Haram violence since 2014. Some 169,000 people have sought shelter in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
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