A Boko Haram attack earlier this week on the northern Nigerian town of Damassak left 50 people dead and forced at least 3,000 to flee to neighbouring Niger's Diffa region, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) reported today.
“Our teams in Diffa say that people are still arriving in Niger from Nigeria as a result of the attack,” said Adrian Edwards, a UNHCR spokesman based in Geneva.
The town of Damassak, which lies just a few kilometres from the Niger border, was reportedly captured by Boko Haram on November 24.
UNHCR field staff has reported that while most refugees wait for boats to cross the Komadougou Yobé River separating the two countries, others have been trying to swim across to safety.
Locals in the area have said they have seen people drown while trying to cross the river. Other reports claim that people fleeing were shot by Boko Haram who chased as far as the river banks.
And those who have made it across the river to Niger are reporting there are still many displaced, mostly women, children, older people and some injured on the Nigerian side of the river waiting to cross over to Niger.
The new arrivals also reported that many civilians were killed during the attack on Damassak, especially young men, but that insurgents were also shooting at women and children.
Some said that they believed the attack was in reprisal for the enlistment of young men in self-defence groups, which have been formed to fight the insurgents.
According to UNHCR staff on the ground, many children were separated from their parents during the attack and the escape to Niger. In the closest town, Chetimari, children and adults alike are wandering around the makeshift settlements, searching for relatives.
“Refugees said they had no time to collect any of their belongings and had to leave everything behind. With its partners and the local community, UNHCR has been providing plastic sheeting and blankets to help people put up temporary shelters and [as protection] against the night-time cold,” Mr. Edwards said.
After an attack on the Nigerian village of Malan Fatori on 5 October, which prompted the flight of more than 1,000 people to Niger, Damassak is the second large attack occurring only a few kilometres away from the Nigerian-Niger border in less than two months.
The increasing presence of the insurgents in close proximity to the border with Niger is likely to lead to new displacements in the near future.
According to authorities, violence in Nigeria has pushed more than 39,000 Nigerians to flee to Cameroon and 2,800 to Chad. In Nigeria, some 700,000 people are internally displaced.
More than 100,000 people have fled to Niger since May 2013, when the Nigerian government declared a state of emergency in three north-eastern states following attacks from Boko Haram. Some 30,000 people have found refuge in the area in the past two months alone.
“While local inhabitants have shared their meagre resources with the Nigerian refugees, we fear that the already fragile economic structure could collapse under the strain,” Mr. Edwards said.