A heart-rending story broke last week that over 200,000 Nigerian refugees are starving in neighbouring Cameroon, in addition to living in pathetic conditions without healthcare, food, accommodation or education for their children. The refugees said the Federal Government of Nigeria has abandoned them while the host government could not meet up with the challenges of catering for them. The refugees also said they want to come back home no matter the situation in their communities so as to engage in economic activities.
Some of the refugees described themselves as "forgotten citizens.'" They said their food ration in Cameroon had been drastically reduced. The refugees spoke when officials of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees [UNHCR], Nigeria and Cameroon visited their Minawao camp in Cameroon's Far North region, which borders Borno State. One of the refugees told the visitors, "Hunger is the reason why we left Nigeria after Boko Haram chased us from our homes. We are very hungry here. The quantity of food usually given to us has been greatly reduced. We want to ask; are we no longer Nigerians? Has Nigeria forgotten us? We want to come back and stay on our own soil and work, even without food."
UNHCR's Representative to Nigeria and West Africa Jose Antonio Canhandula later told Nigerian officials the condition for refugees' return was not yet feasible. He however urged Nigeria to improve the reception conditions in anticipation of continuous return. "Let us not fool ourselves. the situation in areas of return is not yet conducive for people to return and this is probably why the Federal Government is moving people away from Banki [in Bama Local Government Area of Borno State]. We told them that the time is not ripe for return; that the tripartite agreement is for now just a framework. The refugees do not want to remain dependent on humanitarian gestures. So, return will continue mainly because Nigerian refugees do not appreciate the condition of dependence."
Canhandula said the refugees would need to exercise some patience with regards to their feeding, saying while the World Food Programme [WFP] has reduced the 'food basket' for the Nigerian refugees by 25 percent, it reduced that of refugees from Central African Republic [CAR] by 50 percent. An official of Nigeria's Foreign Affairs Ministry Ambassador Nuhu Iliya said Nigeria is doing all it can to ensure the voluntary return of all refugees to their homeland. He said security forces are working to ensure a return to normal life in all liberated areas.
The distressing situation of these refugees is worrisome. Data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs shows that from the start of the Boko Haram crisis in 2009, more than 20,000 people have been killed [Borno Governor Kashim Shettima said over 100,000]; thousands of women and girls abducted and children drafted as so-called "suicide" bombers into the insurgency. Up to 2.1 million people fled their homes at the height of the conflict, 1.9 million of whom are currently internally displaced and over 200, 000 people are still in Cameroon, Chad and Niger Republic.
Despite the decimation of Boko Haram terrorists by the military, conditions are not yet ripe for refugees to return home especially in the far northern and eastern parts of Borno State which are still infested by insurgents. Almost 7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in three North Eats states, more than 50 per cent of whom are children. So while the plight of internally displaced persons within the country is also dire, those that had to flee to neighbouring countries are in an even worse state. Cameroonian authorities, international humanitarian agencies as well as Nigerian governments have helped but they should step up efforts towards bringing all vulnerable Nigerians in neighbouring countries back home pending the final routing of the terrorists and the rebuilding of the communities.