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Nigerian Refugees Begin to Return Home

Some 10,000 Nigerian refugees who fled ethnic conflict, nearly three years ago, are starting to return home from Cameroon. Although the violence in a part of Taraba State has stabilized, there are still concerns for the refugee's security.

An estimates 1,200 Nigerians are returning, early this week, to Mambila Plateau in Taraba State, the scene of fighting several years ago. They are beginning the process of repatriation sponsored by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Fulani-Hausa at a cattle market in Abuja, Nigeria
Most of the people who are returning to Nigeria are Fulani cattle herdsman who fled clashes with ethnic Mambila farming communities on Mambila plateau in 2002. More than one hundred people were killed in the fighting over rights to use land.

A U.N.H.C.R. representative in Cameroon - Jaques Franquin - says the government had warned the mainly Christian Mambila farmers of the return of the Muslim Fulani. Although the Nigerian government has worked to improve ethnic relations in the area, he says there is always a danger of renewed violence.

"We are going to give them materials to rebuild their houses, if necessary, and give them just a bit of money for them to reintegrate. From that point of view, this is the standard support that U.N.H.C.R. is always providing in cases of repatriation," said Mr. Franquin. "More important is the security environment that is provided by authorities and the way those people will be able to access fields, where they can breed their cattle."

Mr. Franquin, who is accompanying the first convoy of refugees back home, emphasizes that the repatriation is voluntary and people will decide whether they feel secure enough to return.

Most of the 17,000 Nigerian refugees who fled ethnic conflict in 2002 have remained in Cameroon. Mr. Franquin praised Cameroon's treatment of refugees saying it was an example for the world.

"Cameroon did not impose U.N.H.C.R. to set up camps for these populations," said Mr. Franquin. "They had a lot of family and ethnic links with the local population and they have been able to integrate with the local population and we see these people being able to live absolutely normally, as Cameroonians."

As some of the Nigerian refugees from Taraba State leave, a new influx of refugees could come into Cameroon from the Central African Republic. Some villagers on C.A.R.'s eastern border have already fled attacks from former combatants who helped bring President Francois Bozize to power in a 2003 coup. There are an estimated 30,000 refugees in Cameroon from surrounding West African countries.