As thousands of refugees return from Cameroon to north-eastern Nigeria, straining the few existing services and creating a new emergency, the United Nations refugee agency is stepping up its response to improve conditions.
More than 12,000 refugees returned in May alone, with 1,800 entering in just one day early last week. They are arriving to difficult conditions in the town of Banki, some 100 kilometres southeast of Maiduguri and just inside Nigeria.
“Though returns have dropped significantly since last week – with only 24 coming back on Monday – we are nonetheless concerned, as Banki is already hosting a large population of nearly 45,000 internally displaced people, and is far from ready to receive such large numbers,” said Babar Baloch, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The decisions to return are being taken by refugees themselves – people variously cite difficult conditions at Cameroon's Minawao camp or the need to be back for the farming season. The refugees also organize their own transport.
“In Banki, and also at nearby towns where people are hoping to head, humanitarian access is very limited and largely dependent on the availability of military escorts. As most returnees are still unable to travel onwards to their home villages where security remains uncertain, there is a pressing need for additional land for more shelter and other facilities at the [internally displaced persons] site,” continued UNHCR.
According to the UN agency, people are sleeping alongside their few possessions in the open. In the absence of cooking fuel many are burning plastic. Sanitation is a major worry too, as what is available cannot serve the number of people in the site. There is little separation between areas for washing clothes and ablutions. With little or no drainage system at water collection points, and the incoming rainy season, the risk of waterborne disease is great.
UNHCR and the Nigerian Government have alerted the refugees in Cameroon that the rate of returns is a strain on the few existing services and create a new emergency for which the response capacity is very limited.
“UNHCR and our partners in Banki are doing what we can, given difficult circumstances, to improve conditions both there and in other areas that returnees are seeking to reach such as Gwoza which lies further south of Banki,” explained Mr. Balloch.
“Plastic sheeting is being provided and some 1500 emergency shelters are under way along with non-food aid kits. Currently food aid is an urgent need and we are appealing to other humanitarian partners to come forward with additional expertise and help,” he elaborated.
On 3 March, UNHCR, Cameroon and Nigeria, signed a Tripartite Agreement aimed at facilitating voluntary returns. The objective and purpose of the tripartite agreement is to ensure that returns comply with international standards.
The situation is part of a wider crisis in the Lake Chad Basin that has displaced over 2.7 million people, including some 210,000 Nigerian refugees into neighbouring countries. As of mid-May, 96,000 of these were registered as being in Cameroon.
UNHCR is monitoring the situation on both sides of Nigeria's border with its neighbours and we continue to urge all countries in the region to allow safe haven and asylum procedures to all those in need. Taking into account the security constraints, UNHCR has started strengthening presence in border entry points for better monitoring and reporting.