Surging violence in Nigeria drives thousands across borders

Some 15,000 people have been forced to flee into neighbouring Chad and Cameroon as conflict in Nigeria's restive Borno State escalates.

Refugees packed into motorized canoes arrive in Ngouboua, Chad after fleeing previous violence in the Lake Chad and Sahel area.
© UNHCR/Aristophane Ngargoune

Aicha Moussa is lucky to be alive. Three days after militants attacked her village in Baga town in north-eastern Nigeria, she took off with her two children, crossing into Chad.

“I was afraid. I feared for my life and those of my children,” says the 25-year-old mother.

Aicha managed to get to Krikatia, a Chadian locality bordering Nigeria, where she spent the night, sleeping under the trees. The experience was harrowing for her.

“My first night was very painful. My little girl had a high fever all night long,” she says.

They left the following day for Ngouboua, a village on the shores of Lake Chad, by crossing the lake on a three-hour boat ride. Fortunately, Aisha was able to get her daughter treatment at a local health centre.

"My son is crying all day because he wants to see his mother.”

Fearing for his life, Issa Mohamed, 33, also fled the same attacks on foot, walking for two days with his seven-year-old son. He has no idea where his wife is. She was at the market when the attack happened.

“I have not heard any news of my wife since we left,” he says. “My son is crying all day because he wants to see his mother.”

An estimated 6,000 refugees have fled the insecurity in Nigeria’s Borno State since late December, when clashes erupted between Nigerian government forces and non-state armed groups in Baga town. They are fleeing in fear of their lives after threats of retaliation and intimidation following militant attacks.

Chad. New influx of Nigerian refugees in the Lake Chad region

Aicha Moussa from Nigeria and her two children were forced to flee previous violence in the Lake Chad and Sahel region. Here they stand outside their new "home" in a refugee camp in Chad.  © UNHCR/Aristophane Ngargoune

Many of the refugees, just like Aicha and Mohamed, crossed Lake Chad and arrived in Ngouboua, before being relocated by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to Dar es Salaam camp. So far, over 4,000 refugees have been rebased to the camp, which hosts some 11,300 Nigerian refugees who have arrived here since 2014.

UNHCR and the Chadian authorities are registering the new arrivals and assessing the needs of the most vulnerable people. UNHCR is currently distributing relief items such as blankets, mats and mosquito nets and providing refugees with shelter and food.

The recent upsurge in violence also sparked a sudden influx of 9,000 refugees into Cameroon after militants attacked and ransacked the small border town of Rann in Nigeria’s Borno State last week.

“My friends were burnt alive in their homes and my uncle’s throat was slit right before me.”

In an alarming twist of events, the refugees who had sought safety in the Cameroonian town of Goura were reported as forcibly returned some days later.

One father who managed to stay behind in Cameroon with his family, recalls the events that led him to flee through bushes and desert land, enduring a 27-kilometre-long journey to Goura in search of safety.

“My friends were burnt alive in their homes and my uncle’s throat was slit right before me,” Mohamed says. “I saw it with my own eyes.”

He swears he will never return. “Enough is enough! I can’t go back there,” he cries.

Cameroon. Rann's attack survivors

Nigerian asylum seeker Mohamed poses with his family in the village of Goura, Cameroon.  © UNHCR/Xavier Bourgois

His wife, seated silently on a mat, drops her head and begins to sob as he walks out suddenly to hide his tears.

The violent attacks on Rann, which has been a refuge town for nearly 70,000 displaced Nigerians left 14 people dead and caught many by surprise.

“The figures kept rising every hour,” says Joseph Beyongolo, the Head of UNHCR’s office in Kousseri. “We realized that if we got to 5,000 new arrivals, we would need urgent reinforcements.”

UNHCR dispatched teams to register the stranded arrivals while Médecins Sans Frontières quickly distributed hot meals to them.

UNHCR has expressed alarm over reports of the forced returns and the High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi has urged Cameroon to maintain its open-door policy to refugees.

“This action was totally unexpected and puts lives of thousands of refugees at risk.”

“This action was totally unexpected and puts lives of thousands of refugees at risk,” Grandi said in a statement last week. “Cameroon should halt immediately any more forced returns and ensure full compliance with its refugee protection obligations under its own national legislation, as well as international law.”

Cameroon has a long history of hosting refugees in the region, mainly from Nigeria. There are currently over 370,000 refugees there, 100,000 of whom are Nigerians.  

In 2017, UNHCR, Nigeria and Cameroon signed a tripartite agreement, committing them to protect and assist Nigerian refugees, until conditions improved and they could be assisted to return home in safety and dignity.

UNHCR is reiterating its call to countries in the region to keep their borders open for refugees fleeing insecurity in Nigeria.