Big Story 10

Menaced by Boko Haram, displaced Nigerians 'too scared' to go home

YAOUNDE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of thousands of people uprooted by Boko Haram violence in the Lake Chad region are too afraid to return home, as the Islamist group continues to target citizens, a top aid official said.

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who recently visited Nigeria’s Borno state, said attacks had been reported “every single day when we were there”.

“It was always and uniformly against the civilian populations,” he told a London event on the crisis by video link. “They’re too scared to return to their ancestral lands.”

The violence provoked by Boko Haram’s eight-year insurgency makes it extremely difficult for those who have fled to consider going home, emphasized Egeland, a former U.N. aid chief.

Attacks, including suicide bombings, and the campaign against the militants have uprooted more than 2.4 million people across four nations surrounding Lake Chad, including 1.8 million who are displaced inside northeast Nigeria.

The insurgency, which has left over 20,000 dead, is showing little sign of slowing, despite Nigerian government assurances Boko Haram is on the verge of defeat.

In a recent survey by international aid agencies, covering 27,000 people in 3,400 displaced households in Borno state, more than 80 percent of respondents said it was not yet safe to go home, Egeland said on Tuesday.

“This is a very strong signal both to the government and to us as humanitarian actors that we have to plan for a better and safer framework (for) returns,” he added.

Experts say the longer people stay away from their homes, the less likely they are to go back.

Toby Lanzer, who was the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel region until January, said that for each year of displacement, the likelihood of return drops by about 9.5 percent.

“We shouldn’t confuse the desire to go home with likelihood to go home,” he told the discussion at the Overseas Development Institute, broadcast online. “People are not just sitting in a camp and waiting for a handout - they’re getting on with life.”

Cities, towns and villages hosting large displaced populations should be provided with water, sanitation, education and health services so they can cope with the new arrivals, Lanzer added.

The population of Maiduguri, Borno state’s capital, and Greater Maiduguri has doubled to 2 million as people fled violence in other parts of the state, according to the United Nations.

More than three in four displaced Nigerians are now living among host communities in areas that are already economically deprived. Lanzer said those hosts need more support.

“We’re talking about the poorest of the poor who open up their hearts and their homes for people. The solutions have to include helping local people and local institutions to play a greater role in all of this,” he said.