Some 1,000 Chadian migrants – most of them children separated from their families – are waiting for aid in the village of N’Gbouboua in the Lac region of western Chad having fled Boko Haram-related violence in Nigeria, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
With more arriving each day – some 100 have arrived in the last 48 hours according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – the food situation is getting desperate, say aid workers.
Migrants told UNICEF they fled the villages of Douri and Madaye in eastern Nigeria when members of the Boko Haram militant group attacked them, burning down houses. Police and military forces then arrived and started firing at those who remained, claiming they were Boko Haram supporters, according to witness accounts.
Some 10,000 people have reportedly fled northern Nigeria for Chad and Niger in recent weeks, fleeing violent crackdowns and Boko Haram violence.
The head of the canton and sub-head of the district have put together a local emergency team to register migrants and try to build them a makeshift shelter on the outskirts of N’Gbouboua. Most of the migrants are currently sheltering in the village’s two mosques and one church.
Some 557 of the migrants are children, 80 percent of them Koranic students or `talibés’, who live with and support their Koranic teachers (`marabouts’), said a senior district official. According to IOM, most of these children come from the Lac Chad region, including the villages of N’djelea, Bagasoula and N’gloua.
Attacks by Boko Haram and ensuing violent crackdowns by Nigerian police and military forces have killed up to 1,000 people in Nigeria since 2009.
Residents of the surrounding eastern Nigerian villages of Dougouri, Folkine, Koyorom and Malfahtri also fled.
To reach N’Gbouboua, each migrant had to take up to six boats to cross Lake Chad as the crossing is often interrupted by river banks and boats have to avoid very low water levels. Migrants told UNICEF Water and Sanitation Officer Jules Laouhingamaye that many had stayed behind in the Chadian village of Faroro nearer the Nigerian border, some 30km from N’Gouboua.
Begging to survive
The needs are enormous and migrants urgently “need everything”, said Laouhingamaye, with food and water the most urgent priorities. UNICEF has counted a significant number of breastfeeding women among the migrants, many of whom have had little or nothing to eat in over a week. Village residents are sharing what little food they have but there is simply not enough to go around, he said.
Many of the talibés, accustomed to begging for alms, are going door-to-door begging for food, but the villagers “have had enough – they’re starting to get angry,” he said.
UNICEF’s Laouhingamaye, along with staff from their partner NGO Secours Islamique France (SIF), have distributed soap and some water containers to migrants, and are putting together a water and sanitation response following a rapid evaluation on 3 and 4 March.
“We’re doing what we can to help get them sanitation materials, but food is needed now,” he told IRIN in Bol, (capital of Lac Region in Chad, some 125km away), having just returned from the site.
The deputy head of the region has asked the regional authorities and aid agencies for aid but thus far no food has been delivered. “Food is the immediate priority,” Laouhingamaye told IRIN in Bol.
The UN country team, including representatives from the World Food Programme, is meeting on 6 March to plan the UN response.
Reaching N’Gbouboua involves travelling on appalling roads with maximum speeds of 45km per hour, and a river crossing on a rudimentary raft that will take nothing larger than a 4WD vehicle.
Among the migrants are some 100 Christians – most of them farmers from the Mayo Kebi and Tandjile regions of southern Chad. “We will have to help provide these groups with transport so they can return to their homes,” said IOM’s Sufi.
If the resources are available, IOM will start an operation to help migrants return to their homes as soon as possible said Sufi. The organization recently helped some 100,000 Chadian returnees home after they fled violence in Libya.
“We will follow the same approach here… This is a migration crisis. It is risky to leave these people there [so close to the border]. These people have nothing to do with Boko Haram,” Sufi told IRIN from the capital, N’djamena. IOM has already distributed some medicines but many more are needed.
Some of the migrants who hail from Chad’s Kanem region further north have already started to make their way home, according to IOM; while among those in N’Gbouboua, most told UNICEF they want to return to their homes in Chad, while some hope to return to Nigeria if things become less insecure.
Reunifying the hundreds of `talibés’ will be an arduous task, say child protection agencies.
Gamalao Dara, a child protection consultant with UNICEF who returned from the site yesterday after evaluating protection needs, told IRIN the situation is “complicated” but many of the children they interviewed do know the names of their home villages and thus their families may be traceable.
Sufi told IRIN the task may be hard but it is not impossible: “As agencies we have experience in family reunification… We will have to see what can and cannot be done.”