MAIDUGURI, Nigeria, Feb 23 (UNHCR) – UNHCR's top protection official, Volker Türk, has called on the Nigerian authorities to heed the concerns of internally displaced people (IDP) in the north-east of the country.
"We all need to listen to the IDPs, their aspirations and sense of dignity and safety," he stressed during a visit at the weekend to Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, referring to organized returns to areas back under government control but still considered risky.
Earlier this month, suicide bombers killed more than 50 people and injured dozens in attacks on a site holding some 50,000 IDPs at Dikwa in Borno, the state hardest hit by the Boko Haram insurgency.
The UN Refugee Agency has long been unable to visit the Dikwa site for security reasons. Many of the IDPs in Borno come from towns and villages that have been practically razed over the past two years, lacking infrastructure, basic services and security.
Türk, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, arrived in Nigeria last Thursday to review the refugee agency's emergency operations in the north-east, where UNHCR helps tens of thousands of IDPs located in camps. He has also met Nigeria's Vice President Yemi Osinbajo in Abuja and government partners to discuss the challenges and areas of cooperation.
During these meetings, he appealed to the government to take advantage of UNHCR's experience in voluntary repatriation and to work closely to ensure the welfare of people of concern. The insurgency has affected about 5 million people, including more than 2.2 million Nigerians who are internally displaced and almost 180,000 who have fled to neighbouring countries. Türk offered to help neighbouring countries organize voluntary repatriation where and when the conditions were right.
While encouraging government institutions and civil society organizations to lead the response to forced displacement, he said: "UNHCR, as part of the international community, will continue to support local initiatives."
The Assistant High Commissioner also met IDPs in Borno and Yola states, listening to harrowing tales of violence and destruction and the continuing suffering and challenges facing people unable to return home. He was deeply moved by their courage and resilience.
At Malkohi, on the outskirts of Yola, capital of Adamawa state, he talked to some of the internally displaced about their concerns and situation. "We want to listen to the people in order to better assist them," Türk said. Hapsatu Amadu, a 47-year-old community leader, told him they needed clothing, food and shelter. "We are exposed to the vagaries of the weather in these grass thatched huts," she explained.
UNHCR and its partners have been providing protection, shelter, camp management training and assistance to about 10 per cent of the IDPs in north-east Nigeria, where most of the displaced live with host families. At Bakassi camp in Maiduguri, visited by Türk, UNHCR has built 450 transitional shelters.
But the needs in Borno, including Maiduguri's 17 organized and 13 informal IDP camps hosting some 125,000 people, are great and increasing. "Borno is the most devastated state; social and health infrastructures are virtually non-existent," a senior local government official, Alhadji Usman Didda Shua, told Türk. "This state should be treated on the same footing with Syria," he added of an emergency that is under-reported and under-funded as well as spreading in the region.
In Borno alone, 16 out of 38 hospitals have been destroyed or looted, and 214 primary health care centres shut. Bama was the second largest city in Borno until 2014 with a population of 600,000. Today it lies in ruins and is deserted. State authorities say it will require millions of dollars to reconstruct.
"In each crisis, there is an opportunity, which we need to seize, hopefully in the form of a new social contract," Türk concluded. He will next visit Cameroon to discuss the situation of Nigerian refugees there and to visit the Minawao refugee camp in the Far North Region before wrapping up his regional visit on Wednesday.
By Hanson Tamfu in Maiduguri, Nigeria