Boko Haram's refugees
Before 2013, the term "urban refugees" in Nigeria would have referred to the victims of government demolitions of slums in Nigeria's busiest cities, like Lagos and Port Harcourt. Last year I visited Ijora Badia, in Lagos, where 9,000 persons were displaced by a government demolition project.
Those refugee-by-demolition numbers, however, pale when compared to the number of persons displaced by the terrorist uprising that has ravaged Nigeria’s northeast region in recent years. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said that half a million persons had been displaced within Nigeria by the crisis, which started in 2011 and has escalated since the end of 2013.
Another 57,000 are believed to have fled into the neighboring countries of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon since May 2013, when the Federal Government declared a state of emergency in the affected states and significantly increased military presence in the area. Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) estimated that a quarter of a million people were displaced between January and March 2014.
While not all of the displaced qualify to be termed "urban refugees," a good number do, having fled to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, from surrounding rural areas — which have been the ones worst affected by the insurgency. And only this week a convoy of vehicles intercepted by the military on a highway in southeastern Nigeria in the early hours of Sunday was reportedly loaded with hundreds of persons (mostly men) believed to be fleeing the north in search of jobs down south.
It definitely no longer seems farfetched to believe that Nigeria is on the brink of its biggest humanitarian crisis since the end of the civil war in 1970. Months ago one leading politician told me this was the biggest threat to Nigeria's unity since the war.
The implications are dire. Urban refugees are, like camp-based refugees, liable to hunger/malnutrition, disease, sexual abuse, and, on top of that, hostility from host communities feeling intensified pressure on already inadequate existing infrastructure.
Ongoing attacks by Boko Haram and the associated heavy death tolls have conspired to overshadow the disturbing extent of the challenges faced by survivors. On the international front the world has presumably bigger humanitarian hotspots like Syria and Sudan to contend with.
That's not to say that efforts are not being made to tackle the problem. At a protest march for the more than 200 girls abducted by Boko Haram in Lagos in May, I spoke to a young Nigerian woman who organized a fundraiser for victims of Boko Haram. The 'Ball for Borno' charity event was held on March 30, 2014, to raise money and relief materials for a foundation which works in the crisis region.
Clearly there are individuals and organisations at work — NEMA is involved in setting up relief camps and providing supplies — but there is a lot more that can be done, involving the combined efforts of journalists, local philanthropic initiatives, governments, and the international community.