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The Humanitarian Fallout from Cameroon’s Struggle Against Boko Haram

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The plight of refugees and the internally displaced from the Boko Haram conflict in Cameroon’s Far North is adding to the many burdens of an already impoverished population

Cameroon has been fighting the Boko Haram jihadist group in its Far North region for the last three years. The conflict has killed nearly 1,600 people in Cameroon alone and has led to a humanitarian crisis in what was already one of the country’s most impoverished and least-educated regions. As donors and experts convene on 24 February at the Oslo Humanitarian Conference on Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin, the international community must find ways to improve overcrowded refugee camps and mitigate growing problems for the local population.

The Far North now hosts 87,000 of Cameroon’s over 360,000 refugees, 191,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) and 36,000 Cameroonian returnees. Overall, including local Cameroonians, an estimated 1.6 million people in the Far North now need urgent humanitarian assistance, more than half of 2.9 million people who share the same plight throughout the country.

The government, preoccupied with its military campaign against Boko Haram, has done little to support affected civilians. International agencies and NGOs have taken welcome steps to meet the needs of refugees, and to a lesser extent IDPs, even if these efforts have been underfunded and sometimes insufficiently coordinated. Earlier and much better-funded attention to the wider problems of displacement will make that response more effective, more sustainable and better able to prevent conflict recurring.

Minawao camp: the visible tip of the humanitarian crisis

Opened in July 2013 in the Far North’s Mayo Tsanga department, Minawao camp hosts Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram atrocities. Initially it hosted 18,000 refugees. Now 60,000 people live there, three times its official capacity. Each week 150 more people arrive and 60 babies are born. It now covers a sprawling 623 hectares, as the authorities decided to expand the camp rather than set up a second site in the Mayo Danay department, as proposed by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2015. When Crisis Group conducted research in Minawao in January, assistance was being given by ten NGOs and UN agencies.

In 2013, the refugees’ situation was dire, due to a lack of government experience with refugees and an absence of international attention and funding. Since then, things have gradually improved, especially in education. Some 68 per cent of children go to school in the camp, far above the Far North’s 46 per cent education rate average, but still below the 84 per cent national average. Germany has helped some who finish high school in the camp to attend universities in Buea or Yaoundé. In last year’s First School Leaving Certificate Examination (a Cameroonian test taken between the ages of eleven and thirteen), Minawao camp students, taught by Anglophone Cameroonian teachers, ranked first in the entire Mayo Tsanaga department.

However, because of funding shortfalls, humanitarian assistance still covers only about one third of the urgent needs in the Far North. As a result, key problems remain, including shortages of food, water, healthcare assistance, school equipment and social activities.

The work of NGOs and religious leaders has also reduced initial communal and religious tensions caused by the crisis. But problems have emerged recently between established and newly arrived refugees. The former often suspect the latter of being Boko Haram sympathisers. “How did they manage to stay in Boko Haram-controlled areas for more than a year if they were not sympathisers? Why do they only leave their place and seek asylum now, when Boko Haram is weakened?”, one refugee asked us. These suspicions explain why the earlier refugees are reluctant to allow new ones to join their 184 strong camp security group, or the camp’s nine committees dealing with issues like the environment, water, youth and women’s needs.

Such suspicions take little account of the complex route many new arrivals have taken to get to the camp. Most of those who arrived recently were already in Cameroon, living either in the border towns or with Cameroonian families. Very few have come directly from Nigeria, and many among them were previously in Nigerian IDP camps. “We were told by our friends and families that refugees are better looked after here than in IDP camps in our country”, one refugee said. Other newly arrived refugees told Crisis Group they moved to Minawao due to scarcity of resources in other parts of Cameroon. “My in-laws’ family in Mozogo (in Mayo Tsanaga) was no longer able to feed us and our four children. We had no access to land and no NGO support, so we decided to move in Minawao”, says recent arrival Yacoubou, a Nigerian from Balavrasa in the Gwoza local government area. The prefect, or head civilian administrator, of Mayo Tsanaga noted: “most new refugees have already been living in Cameroon for a year or more”.

Tensions are also surfacing between new arrivals and local people. Between 2015 and 2016, Cameroonians from the town of Zamaï near Minawao camp accused refugees of destroying their trees for firewood. The spokesman and elected president of the Central Committee of refugees told Crisis Group: “We need that for cooking and build[ing] our shelters”. After the UNHCR and Plan International mediated between the refugees and the Zamaï traditional chief, the cutting of trees now appears to have been solved with compensation given to the local community, including through the replanting of 30,000 trees.

The displacement crisis beyond the camps

Despite needing far greater resources as ever more people arrive seeking refuge, Minawao offers the best humanitarian assistance in the region. It benefits from international aid, partly as a result of concern generated by visits from the former UNHCR head António Guterres, in March 2016, quickly followed by then U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power in April.

But not only refugees need help. More than 1.6 million are in urgent need of food aid in Cameroon’s Far North, where even before the crisis three of the region’s four million inhabitants lived under the poverty line. Some of the 30,000 unregistered refugees and most IDPs live in host communities, not in camps. Those host communities have to share what they have with them and lack the funds and support to do so. Few of the 191,000 IDPs receive help from the government, which relies on the international community to deal with the humanitarian aspects of the conflict while it focuses on the military response. In Gassama, Labado and several other villages, the army has pushed inhabitants out of their homes to secure areas round their bases, but without giving any support or making plans for their return.