Violence in northwest Nigeria has forced about 23,000 refugees to flee to Niger since April, raising concerns about the deteriorating security situation.
The numbers fleeing to neighbouring Niger have almost tripled from last year when surging attacks in Sokoto, Zamfara and Katsina states has sent the first influx of 20,000. More than 60,000 have crossed the border since then, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said on Tuesday.
The UNHCR said people are being attacked and killed by groups of armed men, including herders and farmers fighting over resources, bandits attempting to steal property, and vigilantes carrying out revenge attacks.
UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said dozens of civilians have been killed during attacks on villages and local government areas.
The deadliest attack claimed 47 lives in Katsina State, the agency said, prompting air strikes by Nigerian security forces already stretched tackling a decade-long insurgency by Islamist group Boko Haram in the northeast.
“Those fleeing speak of extreme violence unleashed against civilians, murders, kidnappings for ransom, pillaging and looting of villages. Refugees from Nigeria are being allowed to seek protection in Niger despite the border closures measures due to COVID-19,” Baloch said.
He said most of the refugees are desperate, destitute women and children.
The UNHCR says it fears armed incursions inside Nigeria could spill over into Niger. Baloch told VOA insecurity along the border makes it riskier for aid agencies to take care of newly arriving refugees.
The agency said refugees from Nigeria are being allowed to seek protection in Niger despite border closures with people in need of food, shelter and basic services including healthcare.
Baloch said around 19,000 Niger nationals have been displaced in their own country as they fled, fearing insecurity in border areas. The refugees are found in Niger’s southern Maradi region, the agency said.
“One of our main concern with access and remoteness…is closeness of the area where these refugees have arrived to the border. So, our work is going on with authorities that we are able to move them further inland so they are protected from any further incursions or any other attacks that the armed groups may have had,” he said.
Baloch said some 7,000 refugees are in the process of being moved to safer locations, where they can get water, food, shelter and other essential aid. He said fewer refugees in the border areas will ease some of the pressure on impoverished local communities that have been hosting them.
Nigeria closed all land borders in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected over 4,600 people in the country with 150 deaths. It first shut parts of its borders last year to fight smuggling but people could still cross both ways. (Source: UNHCR)