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The UN Desperately Needs Funds to Help Manage a Boko Haram Refugee Crisis

Some 200,000 refugees outside of Nigeria are being cared for almost entirely by the UN and various non-governmental organizations.
April 10, 2015, 9:50pm
Photo by Jerome Delay/AP

Already facing daunting financial shortfalls across nearly all of its humanitarian operations, the United Nations has issued an urgent call for $174 million to protect and assist 192,000 refugees who have fled the Nigerian Islamist insurgency Boko Haram.

UN officials said that an uptick in violence ahead of Nigeria's recent elections, which were held at the end of March, worsened an already daunting task for aid workers.

Though the country's government nominally oversees assistance to some 1.2 million people who have been internally displaced, some 100,000 Nigerians have fled to Niger, 74,000 to northern Cameroon, and 18,000 to southwest Chad. Refugees outside of Nigeria are being cared for almost entirely by the UN and various non-governmental organizations.

"These are already some of the poorest countries in the world and some of the communities that are the most vulnerable," Robert Piper, UN assistant secretary general and regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, told VICE News. He noted that half of the population in Diffa, a southeast region in Niger located just across the border from Nigeria, is already enduring critical food insecurity.

"On top of that we had this wave of people crossing the border seeking sanctuary, and these people have gone into these communities, adding a huge burden to health and food supplies and education," Piper added. "It's the same story in Chad and northern Cameroon."

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement that it hoped that the largely peaceful election of opposition presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari in late March would "restore a safer environment in Nigeria," though the northeastern region of the country where the Boko Haram insurgency has been terrorizing civilians "remains volatile."

In the run-up to the election, a regional force composed of troops from Nigeria, Chad, and Niger was able to dislodge Boko Haram militants from areas of the northeast that they had seized. But even where Boko Haram has appeared to weaken, it has come with a heavy toll. On Friday, the Chadian government announced that 71 of its soldiers had been killed since the beginning of February, and another 416 of them were injured. The UN estimates that Boko Haram has killed more than 15,000 people since 2009.

"Deadly attacks by insurgents on villages and civilians, kidnapping, impunity, and counter insurgency operations continue to trigger displacement," said the UN.

In March, a VICE News video team in the Borno State capital of Maiduguri spoke with a woman whose entire family was captured by Boko Haram.

"We spent about three weeks with them, then they asked us to leave," she said. "[They said] whoever wants to go is free and anyone who wants to stay could do so. So we entered the bush and began to run. They still shot at us with their guns, and we kept running until we got to the border with Niger and the soldiers accepted us."

The woman's family was able to return to Nigeria, but tens of thousands like them have not been able to do so.

Fighting has spread across porous borders: in Cameroon, some 100,000 residents have been displaced inside their own country, where the UN has had to triple its staff in an attempt to manage the crisis.

The UN and aid organizations have long had a presence in Nigeria, Chad and Niger. But many of the workers they employed were nutritionists, agronomists, or polio eradication staff rather than humanitarian crisis workers.

According to the UN, most of those who have fled do not seek refuge in camps out of fear of being targeted by Boko Haram. Piper said that tens of thousands of them have settled with local communities.

Meanwhile, the need for emergency staff — and the funds to pay for them and their supplies — is only expected to increase. The UN estimates that by the end of the year, the number of refugees in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger will rise by 25 percent to 240,000 people.

"We don't have sufficient funds to do what we need to do, and we certainly don't have sufficient funds to support local communities," said Piper.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford