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Thousands Of New Nigerian Refugees Flock to Cameroon To Escape Boko Haram

The UN's refugee agency is struggling to assist the ever-growing number of refugees fleeing violence in Nigeria to overcrowded camps across the border.

by Melodie Bouchaud
Mar 5 2015, 11:15pm

Image via HCR/D.Mbaiorem / UNHCR

The UN's refugee agency is struggling to cope with the thousands of new refugees fleeing violent militants in the north of Nigeria to overcrowded camps in Cameroon.

Some 16,000 people alone crossed the border into Cameroon over the weekend to escape fighting between Boko Haram and regional military forces, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement. French radio station RFI reported that by Thursday, that number had considerably increased to 25,000 refugees.

Susan Din, a reporting officer for UNHCR in Cameroon, told VICE News that she had just reached Kousseri refugee camp — a "transit camp" 55 miles from the border with Nigeria. The latest exodus has brought the total number of Nigerian refugees in Cameroon to 66,000.

Din said the agency is working closely with Cameroonian authorities to evacuate refugees from areas of active conflict, and to relocate them to Kousseri, where aid workers are currently in the process of screening the newly-arrived refugees. Most of the refugees at the camp have fled recent clashes in the Boko Haram stronghold of Dikwa, she said.

Chadian troops stationed in northeast Nigeria recaptured Dikwa this week, killing 117 insurgents, a Chadian army official told France 24. The official confirmed that one of the military's soldiers had died in the clashes, and that a further 34 were injured.

For more than five years, Boko haram has waged a bloodied insurgency in parts of northeastern Nigeria where it is based, killing thousands of locals in an attempt to establish an Islamic caliphate there. The fighting has increasingly spilled across borders into neighboring West African nations, prompting leaders to band together to push back against the insurgency.

Earlier last month, government officials from Benin, Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad formalized the creation of the Force Multinationale Mixte (FMM), an 8,700-strong regional military alliance formed to combat the militant group.

But the brutal violence carried out by the militant group, together with clashes with local and regional security forces, has caused an estimated 151,00 Nigerians to flee their country to seek refuge in neighboring states. Upwards of one million people have been displaced internally, within Nigeria's borders. 

Related: Boko Haram's New Execution Video Imitates Those of the Islamic State

Growing refugee crisis

Boko Haram has multiplied its cross-border attacks in the past few months, hindering aid agencies' access to new refugees. Those that manage to make it to camps still face immense difficulties ahead.

Din said that the facilities at camps like Kousseri are very basic and most are severely overcrowded. Kousseri serves mostly as a transit center for the screening and tallying of refugees, who are then transferred to better-equipped camps, she added.

Daily convoys of 2,000 refugees are scheduled to leave Kousseri for Minawao, a camp 230 miles to the south, which is already home to 32,600 Nigerian refugees, Din said. The first convoy is set to leave Kousseri on Friday, and will be protected by a Cameroonian military escort.

Urgent shelter and sanitation construction is currently under way in Minawao to meet the soaring number of refugees, according to the UNHCR. The camp will also provide refugees with basic aid, including soap, blankets and cooking utensils.

Speaking in Geneva Tuesday, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists that, "Because of the evolving security situation in the region and the prospect of more refugee arrivals, we are discussing the setting up of a second refugee camp, further away from the insecure border."

Access to drinking water is a major issue in the area around Minawao, and the UNHCR said it is currently looking for "a location that will provide adequate levels of potable water for a rapidly growing refugee population in the Far North region."

Related: Chaos in Libya Provides Fertile Ground for Islamic State Propaganda

Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho

Photo viaHCR/D.Mbaiorem / UNHCR