The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) today called on the Governments of Niger and Nigeria to suspend the repatriation of hundreds of refugees who have fled escalating hostilities in Nigeria’s north-eastern Borno state, warning that their return would once again plunge them into the heart of the country’s brutal and ongoing conflict.
“Given the volatile security situation in Borno state and the recent attacks by insurgents, UNHCR is concerned about the nature of these returns and has asked the authorities to stop this operation until there are proper safeguards and a legal framework between Nigeria, Niger and UNHCR,” the UN agency’s spokesperson, William Spindler, said in a Geneva briefing.
The repatriations – which reportedly began on 14 January – have seen hundreds of refugees bussed over the border from Niger to Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno state, while another 11 buses are currently prepared to return more refugees in the coming days, the UN agency explained.
According to UNHCR, refugees fleeing the violence in Nigeria continue to arrive in neighbouring Niger with ‘harrowing tales of killing and destruction,’ including the ‘extreme violence’ inflicted on the lakeside town of Baga where hundreds of people were allegedly killed earlier this month by the Islamist extremist group, Boko Haram.
“A woman, who ran away from Baga with her five children and her husband, said she saw insurgents run over women and children with their cars, shoot at people and use knives to cut their throats in the street,” continued Mr. Spindler. “The terrified family managed to escape at night before reaching Maiduguri, from where they took a bus to Niger.”
In December, the first results of a continuing Nigerian Government census, organized with UNHCR’s technical support, revealed that at least 90,000 people, including Niger nationals previously living in Nigeria, have found refuge in Niger’s Diffa region since May 2013. Many have chosen to remain close to the border, hoping to return to their home villages when the situation calms down.
In addition, another 13,000 Nigerian refugees have arrived in western Chad since the attacks on Baga began. Mr. Spindler said UNHCR was concerned that refugees from Baga and surrounding areas were choosing to flee by water into Chad, indicating that overland routes into Niger were blocked by insurgents.
The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that, overall, some 200,000 people have fled Nigeria to neighbouring countries, including Chad, Cameroon and Niger.