Violence in northwest Nigeria has forced about 23,000 refugees to flee to Niger since April and raised concerns about the deteriorating security situation, the United Nations has said.
The numbers fleeing to neighbouring Niger have almost tripled from last year when the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported the first influx of 20,000 people following a rebellion and banditry in northern Nigeria, which killed hundreds and displaced thousands.
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The latest influx of mostly women and children came after attacks by gunmen in Nigeria’s Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara states during April.
The deadliest attack killed 47 people in Katsina State, the UN refugee agency said, prompting air attacks by the Nigerian security forces already stretched tackling a 10-year-long rebellion by the Boko Haram in the northeast.
“We are working closely with authorities in Niger to relocate at least 7,000 refugees to safety … where water, food, shelter, access to health and other essential assistance can be provided,” UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told a media briefing on Tuesday.
“Discussions are also ongoing with the authorities to recognise on a prima facie basis the refugees fleeing Nigeria and arriving in the region,” he said.
Nigeria closed all land borders in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 4,600 people in the country with 150 deaths.
It first shut parts of its borders last year to fight smuggling, but people could still cross both ways.
The agency said refugees from Nigeria are being allowed to seek protection in Niger despite border closures with people in need of food, shelter and basic services including healthcare.
Overall, Niger hosts more than half a million refugees from Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria, according to a recent UN report.
Baloch said approximately 19,000 Niger nationals have been displaced in their own country as they fled, fearing insecurity in border areas. The refugees are found in Niger’s southern Maradi region, the agency said.
Many have also been caught up in clashes blamed on farmers and herders over dwindling land in Nigeria which have killed more people than the Boko Haram conflict.