Geneva — The U.N. refugee agency says more than 11,500 Nigerians have fled to neighboring Niger over the last month, seeking refuge from increasingly violent, deadly attacks by armed groups.
In November, armed groups repeatedly attacked villages in Sokoto state in Nigeria's northwest. U.N. officials express alarm at the frequency, intensity and brutality of the raids.
Violence is not unknown in this region. Intercommunal clashes between farmers and herders often erupt as competition increases resource scarcity that has been aggravated by the climate crisis.
But those clashes were not as destructive as the recent criminal attacks to which villages are being subjected.
U.N. refugee agency spokesman Boris Cheshirkov says Nigerian refugees arriving in Niger are telling aid workers horrific details about their ordeal. They say killings and other atrocities have prompted them to flee their homes.
"These armed groups, they have criminal motives," he said. "In fact, the arriving refugees are telling our staff that they call them bandits. They are taking people, kidnapping them for ransom. They are looting homes and houses and villages."
Refugees' needs growing quickly
Cheshirkov says the majority of the refugees are women and children. Most, he says, are living with local communities in 26 villages across Bangui, a rural commune in Niger's Tahoua region. He says that area already hosts 3,500 Nigerians.
He says the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, in coordination with Nigerien authorities, is registering new arrivals and providing them with emergency assistance. He notes the need for shelter, food, water and health care is rising rapidly.
At the same time, he says, the UNHCR has established a presence in Nigeria's Sokoto state to assist people displaced by the violence.
"What we are attempting to do is to deliver humanitarian assistance to communities that are internally displaced and that are being affected by these attacks inside Nigeria," Cheshirkov said. "But we are concerned that this year, especially in the last few months and in the month of November, that the frequency of these attacks has increased, and we are seeing more people fleeing across the border into Niger."
Niger now hosts more than 200,000 Nigerian refugees. The UNHCR says humanitarian efforts to respond to the massive caseload are dangerously overstretched.
It says only 64 percent of the $110 million needed for its operation in Niger this year has been funded. It is appealing to international donors to provide the support it needs to continue providing lifesaving assistance.