Violence in parts of North-western Nigeria has forced an estimated 23,000 persons from the area to seek safety in neighbouring Niger Republic in one month, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has said.
The agency said the number of fleeing refugees from the region to Niger Republic has increased to more than 60,000 since the influx began in April last year.
A report last year revealed how 40,000 Nigerians had migrated to Niger as a result of killings and kidnap for ransom crises in Nigeria.
The UNHCR spokesperson, Babar Baloch, at a press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, on Wednesday, said since April 2019, 25 per cent of the refugees who fled from relentless attacks by armed groups came from Sokoto, Zamfara, and Katsina states of Nigeria.
Mr Baloch said many of them have sought refuge in Maradi, the second largest city in Niger.
He said as a result of insecurity at the border region in Nigeria, an additional 19,000 Niger nationals have become displaced inside their own country.
The official also said the humanitarian agency is concerned about the influx of the refugees, “mainly desperate women and children, following the deteriorating security and attacks inside Nigeria’s Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara states, also the risk of armed incursions spilling over into Niger.”
He also raised concern over the non-precautionary measures taken at the borders to check the refugees “despite border closures due to COVID-19.
“An estimated 23,000 people sought safety and security in Niger last month (April), as a result of the ongoing violence in parts of north-western Nigeria. This takes the total number of refugees fleeing that part of Nigeria to take sanctuary in neighbouring Niger to more than 60,000 since the first influx, in April last year.
“Since April 2019, people have fled relentless attacks by armed groups in the Sokoto, Zamfara and Katsina states of Nigeria. Most found refuge in Niger’s Maradi region.
“Fearing and fleeing the same insecurity in the border areas, an additional 19,000 Niger nationals have become displaced inside their own country.
“Many have also been caught up in the clashes reported being blamed on farmers and herders of different ethnic groups as well as vigilantism. Some 95 per cent of the refugees have come from Nigeria’s Sokoto state, rest from Kano, Zamfara and Katsina states. Mr Baloch said.
To address the violence, the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) launched operation “Tsaftan Daji” (Clean Forest), to flush out the armed bandits in the North-West. The army also has an ongoing operation in the region.
Various state governments in the North-west, including those of Zamfara, Sokoto and Katsina, are also negotiating with the armed bandits and have done prisoner swaps with them. The swaps have involved the release of arrested armed bandits in exchange for tens of persons kidnapped by the bandits.
President Muhammadu Buhari had directed the Nigerian Army to join the police to flush out bandits from forests around the country, particularly in Plateau and Sokoto states.
Mr Baloch also said the UN is working closely with authorities in Niger to relocate at least 7,000 refugees to safety.
He added that the UNHCR would continue the biometric registration of refugees to better assess their social needs.
“We are working closely with authorities in Niger to relocate at least 7,000 refugees to safety, in villages 20 kilometres away from the border, where water, food, shelter, access to health and other essential assistance can be provided. This will also enable to ease the pressure on host communities in border areas, where basic infrastructure and services are lacking.
“UNHCR needs to continue biometric registration of refugees to better assess their needs and lead the humanitarian response. Discussions are also ongoing with the authorities to recognize on a prima facie basis the refugees fleeing Nigeria and arriving in the region.”
The UN said the violence in the region is not directly linked to armed groups operating in the Lake Chad and in the Sahel.
It, however, added Maradi to other areas in Niger struggling with insecurity, including in Diffa, Tillaberi and Tahoua, a situation it said was further straining humanitarian actors’ financial resources and their capacity to respond.
Recall that a London-based research group, Conflict Armament Research (CAR), in January revealed arms used in the farmers/herders conflict in North-West Nigeria came from the same source as those used by the terror group, Al Qaeda, in Mali and other Sahel countries.