A group of 4,000 Nigerian refugees who fled to neighboring Niger years ago due to jihadist violence have returned home despite continued insecurity and almost non-existent services in the area.
The return of Nigerian refugees to the town of Mallam Fatori, in the district of Abadam, in the state of Borno, on March 31 and April 1, is part of the effort of the authorities to close the crowded camps, bring back the refugees and relocate the internally displaced people who they want to go home.
But aid workers are concerned that returns to the northeastern city, deserted for half a decade and close to areas still controlled by jihadists, will cause damage and more displacement.
Borno authorities did not respond to AFP’s multiple requests for comment on returns.
But Nigerian officials have previously said they only repatriate people to safe areas, with the aim of suspending them from humanitarian assistance and encouraging agricultural activities.
The Nigerian refugees lived with more than 180,000 others in the Diffa region of southeastern Niger, where they began arriving in 2014 when it was considered safer than conflict-ravaged northeastern Nigeria.
However, Boko Haram and its rival, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) group, have since spread across the border, launching attacks from their island enclaves in Lake Chad.
On March 9 alone, gunmen attacked three Niger villages where Nigerian refugees were present, according to a local researcher following the conflict.
“They killed about 45 people and kidnapped 22 others,” Malik Samuel of the Institute for Security Studies told AFP. “So many Nigerian refugees want to go back to Nigeria.”
– mines, mortars –
The Nigerian military conducted evacuation and patrolling operations alongside Nigerian troops before the Nigerian refugees returned, but Abadam remains a stronghold for ISWAP, which has taken over from Boko Haram to become the dominant threat in the region.
For years, insurgents have infested the area with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), laying roadside ambulances and, more recently, firing mortars at military posts.
“Even the troops are cautious about going on patrol,” said a security source in the state capital Maiduguri, adding that in Mallam Fatori “the concern of the troops is to protect the base from terrorists.”
According to a second security source that collects conflict data and asked to remain anonymous, there have been nearly 50 attacks in Abadam in the past six months alone, including 38 in Mallam Fatori.
The attacks often had little impact, as there were hardly any civilians in the area until these returns, but in February ISWAP claimed to have killed at least 30 soldiers in two ambushes.
ISWAP also warned the government not to bring civilians back to the area, including by infiltrating the city in early March and burning shelters built by the refugee authorities.
A local official who claimed to be with the governor when the refugees returned told AFP that a detachment of the Multinational Joint Task Force, which includes troops from Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, was stationed in the city.
“But their term is only two months,” he said, asking to remain anonymous.
No large-scale attacks on the town have been reported since the return of the refugees, but the real test will come next month, when the rains begin and agricultural activities can resume.
Some civilians may attempt to cross trenches to access camps, where the risk of mines and kidnappings is high.
– limited water –
Meanwhile, access to essential services is limited and aid workers cannot fill the gaps because they consider the area out of reach due to insecurity.
Also, there are no safe roads to and from the city, accessible only through Niger.
“We are concerned about premature repatriation … to Mallam Fatori,” said Camilla Corradin, spokesperson for the INGO Forum which represents 54 international NGOs providing humanitarian and development assistance in Nigeria.
Returns that “are not in line with international legal frameworks”, he added, “will be unsustainable and will cause damage, including subsequent displacement.”
A senior humanitarian official based in the northeast and who gathered information from the city said there was little access to clean water.
“The only water point is on the military base. They have working hours, so there are limited times that returnees can access them, “said the humanitarian official, asking to remain anonymous.
Borno has provided refugees with food and money and built temporary shelters, classrooms and a health center, according to a statement in March by Governor Isa Gusau’s spokesman.
But according to the humanitarian official, the school still has no teachers and there is a shortage of medical supplies in the clinic.
A second humanitarian source based in Abuja said they received the same details from “informants” in the city.
Both said there was not even a functioning market, with the closest located across the international border, in Niger.
“The truth is,” said the first security source, “refugees… literally live in a concentration camp. They are kept in the city, without access to basic needs, and cannot move “.