The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, has expressed concern over basic services and security in a territory formerly controlled by Boko Haram insurgents in Nigeria, as hundreds of internally displaced people are returning to their villages and towns in the north-eastern state of Borno.
“Comprehensive figures are not available but our field staff and partners are reporting both government-facilitated and spontaneous return in recent days of hundreds of people to places such as Mafa, Konduga, Benisheikh and Dikwa,” Leo Dobbs, a spokesperson for UNHCR, told journalists at the regular press briefing in Geneva, Switzerland, on Friday.
UNHCR expects the number to grow in the coming weeks, while noting that government and aid agency assistance had been stepped up in Borno’s 16 newly accessible districts.
“UNHCR and its partners have restricted access to 10 of these districts where some 800,000 people need urgent help,” Mr. Dobbs elaborated. “Some of those now returning to their homes in the liberated areas from places like the Borno capital, Maiduguri, appear to be happy to go back, citing dire conditions in the places where they have been living, including camps for the internally displaced.”
However, UNHCR is concerned about the welfare of the people who are returning to areas that have been devastated under Boko Haram rule.
“Many of the internally displaced will be going back to destroyed homes and infrastructure, and areas lacking health care and other services,” said the refugee agency’s spokesperson. “The returns should be voluntary, dignified and safe – people should be informed about conditions in their home areas.
In regular contact with state officials, UNHCR has raised its concerns and offered to work closely with them to help ensure that the reinstatements are conducted safely with dignity and in accordance with international standards.
Mr. Dobbs pledged that the UN agency would continue to monitor the situation of returnees, especially the most vulnerable.
“Meanwhile, as we and partners scale up our operations in the north-east, security and access to the needy, especially those in the newly accessible areas, remain major challenges. A greater humanitarian response and presence on the ground is urgently needed, aid efforts must be better coordinated, and data collection improved.”
In the past week, UNHCR began to deploy a 14-strong emergency response team, including experienced senior emergency coordinators and several protection officers.
Most of the displaced are women, children and the elderly. Priority issues include shelter, food, potable water and health concerns, including acute malnutrition and cholera prevention.
Mr. Dobbs explained, “Protection issues include sexual and gender-based violence, where we have had successes through community-based protection action groups that encourage dialogue and awareness.”
Over the past two weeks in Bama, the UN refugee agency provided 200 shelters for 1,000 people and distributed non-food items to 16,000 people, while in the Cameroon-Nigeria border town of Banki, it handed out aid items to 10,000 people. In Maiduguri, UNHCR constructed almost 2,000 semi-permanent shelters for around 10,000 people, and is building emergency shelters for 5,000 people in Dikwa.
The UN refugee agency also warned that Boko Haram continues to pose a real threat, despite the recent setbacks suffered by insurgents during joint regional military operations.