The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has expressed concerns over the environmental situation of camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) across northern Nigeria.
The global agency said the congested camps are at risk of a massive spread of the coronavirus if it hits any of its 1.8 million IDPs in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states.
The Humanitarian Coordinator of the agency in Nigeria, Edward Kallon, in a statement on Sunday, called on stakeholders to assist in urgently decongesting the camps.
Most of the displaced persons are in Borno State, the majority of whom are women and children, with around a quarter being children under age five, according to OCHA.
The UN agency added that every one in two camps in Borno State is currently overcrowded with nearly 700,000 vulnerable IDPs living in dire conditions.
"With the COVID-19 pandemic slowly spreading across the country, I am extremely worried about the 1.8 million IDPs in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states and the rest of the nearly eight million vulnerable people in these conflict-affected states.
"Camp decongestion has been a challenge, but it is now a priority. I call on all stakeholders to urgently contribute to efforts being made to decongest camps in respect of people's rights and dignity."
However, UN and INGOs are working with federal and state authorities on expanding the IDP camps to mitigate the risk of fire incidents and the rapid spread of diseases like COVID-19.
"I have to commend the engagement of Borno State authorities and the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs on this issue," Mr Kallon said.
"It is our duty to do our utmost to protect the most vulnerable from another tragedy, whether it is a fire or the COVID-19 virus," he said.
Fire outbreaks in IDPs camps
Mr Kallon also expressed concerns over multiple fire outbreaks that devastated the Monguno Waterboard IDPs camp in Borno State.
He said the fire incidents were the worst recorded in camps in the north-east so far this year.
On April 14, 15 and 18 The International Secondary School camp on April 14, 15 and 18, and the camp in the town of Gamboru, Ngala LGA, Borno State, near the border with Cameroon, on April 16 witnessed ghastly fire outbreaks that destroyed at least 200 and 100 shelters, respectively.
Communities in both Mafa and Monguno LGAs were shocked by massive fires on April 14, with an elderly person who was sleeping in one of the shelters burnt alive.
"The risk of fire outbreaks, as well as the spread of disease, in IDPs camps in Borno State is extremely high due to overcrowding with makeshift and temporary shelters built too closely together.
"Two days after at least 14 people lost their lives also in a fire incident in Ngala on April 16, 15 others were injured, while seven are still treated in a clinic run by aid organisations.
"Over 300 shelters were damaged and a communal shelter hosting 11 families also burned down. More than 8,000 people already displaced by the ongoing crisis once again lost their belongings and shelters.
"Similarly, on April 18, another fire broke out in the Waterboard camp in Monguno LGA, which was the third such incidents recorded in the camp in a week. Initial assessments indicate 100 shelters were entirely burnt down.
"My heartfelt sympathy goes to the many vulnerable families who are affected. These are the worst fire incidents recorded in camps for internally displaced in the north-east so far this year," said Mr Kallon.
"These tragedies come unfortunately among a series of recurring incidents during the dry season, despite regular awareness-raising efforts made by the humanitarian community in IDP camps," the Humanitarian Coordinator said.
He said around 15 fire outbreaks have been recorded in IDP camps since the beginning of the year, affecting more than 15,000 people, and that aid workers are now working around the clock to mobilise support such as food, shelter and essential items like mattresses, pots, soap and clothes.
"I am concerned that we will keep witnessing these recurrent tragedies unless we take urgent measures to jointly address the root cause of the problem," stressed Mr Kallon.