KANO, 5 July (IRIN) - Scores of men, women and children from Niger are fleeing south into Nigeria to escape crop failure and imminent famine, according to Nigerian immigration officials.
A severe drought and locust invasion in 2004 has left 3.6 million people short of food in landlocked Niger, one of the world's poorest countries.
"We have an increasing number of people from Niger who are coming into Nigeria through our border posts," Suleiman Kangiwa, the head of immigration in Nigeria's northern Katsina State told reporters on Monday.
"They are obviously running away from the famine in their country. They believe they can have a better life here in Nigeria," Kangiwa added.
In Niger, granaries lie empty, while food available on the markets is selling for twice the usual price putting it beyond the reach of many households.
People are being forced to eat just one meal a day, sometimes just leaves, and aid workers are treating more and more children for malnutrition. Roughly a quarter of the country's 12 million population is expected to go hungry.
Kangiwa declined to give specific figures, but one of the immigration chief's aides told IRIN that an estimated 100 people were coming across the border every day. Some of them using remote dirt tracks to enter Nigeria undetected, instead of coming through official border crossings.
Kangiwa said only those with valid permits would be allowed to stay. The others would be turned back
"Rules have to be followed or else we will have a crisis of our own," he said.
There are many linguistic and cultural similarities between the inhabitants of southern Niger and northern Nigeria. Most belong to the same Hausa ethnic group and aid workers in the border region say there is much to-ing and fro-ing across the frontier.
Traditionally, citizens from poorer Niger migrate to oil-rich Nigeria over the dry season to earn money, taking on jobs as cobblers, security guards and street vendors. They then return home during the rainy season between April and September to tend to their fields and oversee the crop harvest.
But some are now complaining that the situation back home means they may stay put this year. Some also may be tempted to bring their family south to Nigeria to join them.
"Every year I come here to work but return during the farming season," said Idris Mohammed, a water vendor in northern Nigeria's biggest city of Kano, who hails from the southern Niger city of Zinder.
"This year I can't go back, because one of my relatives just came and told me there have been no rains," he explained.
Niger not aware
While the Nigerian immigration officials sounded the alarm, local government administrators in Niger told IRIN they were not aware of any mass exodus of people toward the south.
"I haven't received any information from the border about people leaving," said Habou Mahaman, a local government official in Maradi region which lies across the border from Katsina State. "No-one's alerted us to this."
Seidou Bakari, the coordinator of the Niger government's food crisis unit, also expressed surprise at the reports coming out of Nigeria.
"I wouldn't say it's impossible, but we are not aware of such movements," he told IRIN by telephone from the capital, Niamey.
"With the start of the rainy season, those people who sought work in urban centres are in fact are coming back home to cultivate their fields. It would surprise me if people were abandoning their land now," he said.
Aid workers expect food shortages to become progressively more critical over the next few months before the new harvest begins in late September. And even then the situation may not improve.
"If the harvest in September is good, we will be able to leave this misery behind. If it's not, it will be a catastrophe," Bakari said.
To try to help farmers maintain their energy levels so that they can farm the land, the Niger government plans to start dispensing food handouts, which it calls "countryside credits", to an estimated two million people.
"So as not to jeopardise the success of the next harvest, we are going to give every farmer or herder 50 kg of rice in July and 50 kg of sorghum in August. Then after the harvest they will pay us back with five kg of millet," Bakari explained.
Bakari and non-governmental aid organisations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres, Oxfam and Action Against Hunger, have criticised western governments for their slow response to appeals for help.
The UN launched a flash appeal for US $18.3 million in mid-May, but last week an official at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said only $2.7 million, or 15 percent, had been received.
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