Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien Statement to the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in the Lake Chad Basin
Thank you for the opportunity to brief the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in the Lake Chad Basin. And may I thank my colleague, Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman, and endorse his powerful and clear statement. This region, which hosts Africa’s fastest growing displacement crisis, needs our urgent, united and collective attention. Violence and brutality to the most heinous, barbaric and unconscionable extent, almost, unimaginable, perpetrated by Boko Haram is resulting in massive forced displacement, human rights violations, severe disruptions to livelihoods, and unprecedented humanitarian needs in a region that was already endemically and deeply vulnerable. As I witnessed during my travels to North East Nigeria and South East Niger and their capitals just a few weeks ago in May, boundless insecurity has deepened the vulnerability of communities in this fragile region, already impacted by severe climate, climate change, progressive desertification, environmental degradation, including the massive drying up of Lake Chad itself straddling four countries’ unpoliceable borders, highest population growth in the world, and our planet’s most widespread, endemic and deepest extreme poverty. The region remains precarious for every one of the millions of our fellow human beings in this area, and the current, exacerbated crisis vastly surpasses the capacity of national and local authorities to respond. People across the Lake Chad Basin desperately need our help.
Across the Lake Chad Basin, spanning parts of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, the UN estimates that over nine million people need humanitarian assistance. About 2.8 million of these people have been displaced, fleeing violent attacks in their towns and villages, like 52 year old grandfather Mustafa, newly relocated into a 7ftx7ft wood and sheeting shelter, after having fled from his torched lifetime house in Bama 11 months before, when Boko Haram brutes ransacked his village – bravely holding his shard of mirror to tell me he was still trying to be the barber he had always been – but his stoicism couldn’t hold back the tears of his fears and his plea for our help. Many are in camps; where living conditions are grim, but the vast majority is living with host communities, who are themselves among the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, living in the Sahel zone which faces chronic drought and food insecurity putting over a million children’s lives at risk year in, year out using next season’s seeds to feed those they’ve taken in, hundreds of thousands of farmers have missed three successive years of planting leaving them without any stocks or income whatsoever to live on. Vital trade routes have been severely disrupted, leaving an estimated 5.2 million people severely food insecure. People in the Lake Chad Basin are some of the toughest in the world - they are used to coping with extreme hardship, exploiting every and any option they can to keep their families going. But as many of the affected people themselves told me during my visit, this suffering has pushed them to the absolute limit - it is unlike anything they have felt before. Personally, I have been travelling throughout this region on and off for the past 37 years – I have never heard such fear and desperation. This is a new terrible.
Children are particularly vulnerable, especially the 1.7 million children who have been displaced across the Lake Chad Basin. Children risk being abducted and forcibly recruited by Boko Haram to take part in the violence including acting as suicide bombers. From January to June 2016, more than 50 children have been coerced to carry out suicide bombings across the four countries. Gender-based violence and sexual exploitation are widespread, and women and girls are at great risk of forced abduction into sexual slavery.
Nigeria is bearing the brunt of the crisis, despite the significant efforts undertaken by the federal and local authorities to address this burgeoning catastrophe. Seven million of the nine million people in need across the Lake Chad Basin, are in Nigeria. As the Nigerian army has progressively regained control of a number of towns and villages in Borno State up in its North East centred round Maiduguri, aid agencies have gradually been able to access new areas. What we have uncovered and assessed is deeply, distressingly alarming, even for those of us who have witnessed such depths of humanitarian need before.
Last month, the Nigerian authorities rightly declared a nutrition emergency for Borno State. Direct reports from the field indicate that affected communities are rapidly running out of food. We have no time to lose: the lean season, which puts millions in this region at real risk of hunger and malnutrition each year across the Lake Chad Basin, has already started. If we do not act now, the human suffering will only get more extreme.
Children are no exception: UNICEF reports that in Borno State alone, 244,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Among these, almost one in five risks death this year if they are not treated. This is 134 children dying each day from a preventable condition. We have to stop this – we can with will, with money, with urgency and with coordination.
While the sheer number of people suffering is mainly in Nigeria, all of the affected countries are deeply vulnerable. In Niger, one single attack by Boko Haram left over 70,000 people displaced in Bosso town in June this year, bringing the total number of displaced people in the Diffa region to over 160,000. Niger is the poorest country in the world; yet despite living on virtually nothing, families there have welcomed the displaced into their homes, and shared their meagre supplies of food and water with the newcomers, as I saw with utter humility and total admiration in equal parts for myself when I visited Fatimah in Diffa, who had voluntarily taken in two families of 11 people in all, sharing her diminishing staple food supplies and her very modest home.
Needs are also dire in Chad’s Lac region, where there are over 60,000 registered displaced persons, and tens of thousands who have not yet been registered. In the Far North region of Cameroon (which has been under a State of Emergency and lock-down for security reasons), the number of people in need of immediate food assistance has quadrupled since June 2015, to over 200,000 today, and the total number of IDPs has increased in the same period to around 190,000. Severe acute malnutrition rates for children under five have surpassed the emergency threshold in the three neighboring countries, as is the case in Nigeria. And the three ‘departments’ along the east of Cameroon were already food insecure because of taking in over a quarter of a million refugees from CAR’s violent conflict over the past two years, with as yet few of those returning to Central African Republic.
Humanitarian actors have been scaling up their assistance, despite a dangerous operating environment. Since January 2016, the Humanitarian Country Team has been able to reach two million people with primary health care out-patient services in North-East Nigeria, including close to 91,500 people in the areas of Borno State where the state has re-established a presence. As of the end of June, WFP had provided 54,000 children at risk of malnutrition with supplementary food, and the agency is targeting one million people for food assistance this year. In the first half of 2016, 148,000 girls and boys were reached with psychosocial support through child-friendly spaces across the four affected countries. However, as is clear, considerably more needs to be done, and needs to be done now.
Humanitarian agencies are taking a regional approach. Last week, the Humanitarian Country Teams in Cameroon and Nigeria partnered to provide vital, cross-border assistance to people in Banki, Nigeria, where up to 20,000 IDPs have been cut off from aid since last year. The food and relief items were transported by road from Cameroon and then distributed by WFP staff from Nigeria, in close cooperation with national authorities in both countries.
It is urgent that we continue these efforts, and complement them with increased development assistance. We must be ready to capitalize on the advances made by the Nigerian State to regain control of territory, as evidenced by the recent reopening of the road leading east of Maiduguri to Dikwa, along which I couldn’t travel even on 19 May this year. This is essential to promote trade and income generation along this vital road axis. But we must be clear – to ourselves and to the Nigerian Government also, this is not just a security issue: the Lake Chad Basin, and the protracted violence of the terrorists of Boko Haram, is for the millions of people there, caught up in this for years, as much or now even more a humanitarian catastrophe as it is a security priority. We, the international community and the Nigerian Government must act accordingly and act now.
Protection must be at the core of the humanitarian response, particularly for women and children, who are at severe risk of exploitation and abuse. Without more help villagers are left to defend themselves. In the town of Baga Sola in Chad, villagers have erected their own checkpoint to try to fend off further attacks. It is nothing more than a flimsy rope. “We are unarmed, so if anybody comes with explosives or attacks us, we will hold him down until the police arrives,” said a youth manning it.
The affected countries have themselves recognized and drawn attention to these protection concerns. Last month, the Governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger held a Regional Protection Dialogue, and agreed on a set of comprehensive actions to enhance protection and respond to the most urgent needs of refugees, internally displaced persons and other affected populations. I commend the four countries for this strong initiative, and urge them to fully implement the commitments made.
Despite the best efforts by the regional authorities and humanitarian actors to expand their reach and scale up life-saving assistance, the means to support the humanitarian response in northeast Nigeria, and throughout the Lake Chad Basin, does not match the staggering scale of need. The 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan for Nigeria is only 28 per cent funded, while those of Niger, Cameroon and Chad are similarly under-funded. I earnestly appeal again to Member States to increase their contributions to the ongoing humanitarian operation rapidly, now.
Earlier this month, at the initiative of the Humanitarian Community including the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator, the Country Teams in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad developed a 90-day plan highlighting the priority humanitarian needs. A united call for US$221 million in funding between July and the end of September to address life-saving needs, was made. I welcome the generous new pledges and contributions that have been made following the release of the 90-day plan. This adds to the CERF allocation of $13 million for Nigeria that I approved at the end of June – and the nearly $90 million already provided by the CERF to the Lake Chad Basin since last year. The scale of the allocation, something of a record in terms of the quantum for one, albeit regional crisis CERF allocation, but I judged to be wholly necessary and proportionate, intended to jumpstart, not be a substitute, please note, for Member State contributions.
I am working with my counterparts in humanitarian agencies to take measures to quickly scale up capacity at the field level, where it is most required. This includes the deployment of additional UN staff, establishing operational hubs, mobilizing relief supplies, and the deployment of international NGOs, which are central to the response. Agencies such as UNICEF, WFP and IOM, as well as their NGO partners, have ambitious scale-up plans which require urgent resources to implement.
We urgently need to strengthen international attention onto this neglected crisis. For months I have been shouting into what feels like an empty room to highlight the dire situation in the Lake Chad Basin. My trip to the region in May was part of this effort. Ambassador Power’s visit to the region in April was also vital in shedding light on this dreadful situation. I also want to take the opportunity to thank the Government of the United States and the European Commission for partnering with the United Nations and the affected countries on an event focused on the humanitarian situation in the Lake Chad Basin during ECOSOC one month ago. It was also highlighted in a packed side-event at the World Humanitarian Summit on 23 May.
We all know that the humanitarian response in itself is insufficient to reestablish people’s lives and livelihoods. We must move from delivering aid to ‘ending need’ a crucial outcome for the World Humanitarian Summit. This means that, in parallel to providing life-saving assistance and protection, which we as humanitarians do, we need a concerted effort with political actors to address the root causes of the violence highlighted by USG Jeffrey Feltman just a few minutes ago. And to move from delivering aid to ‘ending need’ we must work with development partners to address the drivers of vulnerability across this region. It is also important to recognize that national authorities in the four countries have been investing in ensuring greater security for their people but they cannot do it alone. We need to give them our support and partnership in this effort.
During my mission, I visited a camp in Konduga, Nigeria, hosting some 1,600 displaced people. During my visit there, I met a group of displaced women and men who had fled from Bama, some 35 kilometres away. Aissa, Amina, Falmata, Bukar, all of whom had had to flee Bama, described vividly how venturing outside the camp to fetch firewood carried the risk of attack or abduction by Boko Haram, and how they continue to live in abject fear. They also shared with me their concerns for their children, who are not getting enough food and no longer go to school. These displaced persons who I met, and so many others affected by this crisis, desperately need assistance and protection. In the camp, I witnessed not only human suffering, but also the aspirations of so many individuals and families, for a better future or perhaps I should say, for accuracy, just a future. They are looking to the United Nations, to you the Security Council, to all of us, for help urgently. It is within our and your power to be relevant, to do so, to do the right thing for our fellow human beings who need us most. It requires our determination, our decision, and to will – in very real resources – the means. I urge you today, not to fail the people in and around the Lake Chad Basin.
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