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Hundreds of Nigerians return to devastated homes

Refugee children repair a bicycle at Minawao camp in Cameroon, 2015 file photo. © UNHCR/D. Mbaiorem

Refugee children repair a bicycle at Minawao camp in Cameroon, 2015 file photo. © UNHCR/D. Mbaiorem

Hundreds of internally displaced Nigerians are returning to devastated villages and towns that have recently been liberated by the Nigerian armed forces in the north-eastern state of Borno. UNHCR expects the number to grow in the coming weeks, but we remain concerned about conditions, basic services and security in territory formerly controlled by Boko Haram insurgents.

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.

Assistance from the government and aid agencies has been stepped up to the region to help people in 16 newly accessible districts of Borno. UNHCR and its partners have restricted access to 10 of these districts, where some 800,000 people need urgent help.

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.

But 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.

The returns should be voluntary, dignified and safe – people should be informed about conditions in their home areas. UNHCR is in regular touch with state officials and we have raised our concerns and offered to closely work with them to help ensure that returns are conducted in accordance with international standards and in dignity and safety. We will 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, we have started the deployment of 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 that we and our partners are working on include shelter, food, provision of potable water as well as health concerns, including acute malnutrition and cholera prevention. Protection issues include sexual and gender-based violence, where we have had successes through community-based protection action groups that encourage dialogue and awareness.

In concrete terms, UNHCR continues to work through local partners to carry out vital protection monitoring in Bama, Monguno, Damboa, Konduga, Mafa, Dikwa and including Biu, Bayo, Hawul, Shani and Kwaya Kusar districts in southern Borno.

We have also provided 200 shelters for 1,000 people in Bama and have distributed non-food items to 16,000 people in the past two weeks. We have handed out aid items to 10,000 people in the Cameroon-Nigeria border town of Banki. In Maiduguri, we have constructed almost 2,000 semi-permanent shelters for around 10,000 people, and are building emergency shelters for 5,000 people in Dikwa.

The insurgency in north-east Nigeria has forcibly displaced more than 2.25 million people since 2014, including 2.066 million internally displaced people and almost 190,000 refugees in neighbouring Cameroon, Niger and Chad. Although the government has rolled back Boko Haram gains since last year, the insurgency has switched to terror attacks and remains a potent threat.