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UN Refugee Chief: Nigeria Crisis Similar to Syria's

FILE - Refugees at the Minawao camp on Cameroon's northern border with Nigeria, Feb. 23, 2015. (Moki Edwin Kindzeka/VOA)

FILE - Refugees at the Minawao camp on Cameroon's northern border with Nigeria, Feb. 23, 2015. (Moki Edwin Kindzeka/VOA)

United Nations refugee chief António Guterres said masses of people fleeing the terrorist group Boko Haram have created a crisis comparable to the refugee situation caused by Syria's civil war. A shortfall of international funding is hampering the UN’s ability to alleviate the situation.

On Wednesday Guterres wrapped up a two-day visit to Cameroon, where some 75,000 Nigerians have fled attacks by Boko Haram.

Refugees at the Minawao refugee camp in northern Cameroon greeted Guterres with loud calls for help to alleviate their hunger, thirst and illness. He noted refugees at that camp alone have nearly doubled since February from 17,000 to more than 33,000.

He said his agency asked for $71 million to assist displaced people in Nigeria and neighboring countries, but so far has received only $6.8 million in donations.

“We have made a number of internal reforms that have allowed us to have some savings,” he said. “And we have been around the world reducing our costs as much as possible to have some savings able to meet the needs before donor support comes. But I hope donor support will come because it will be unsustainable to go on like this with very little funding.”

Guterres said the situation in northern Nigeria, and its spillover into neighboring countries, ranks among the most urgent crises in the world and needs critical attention.

“I understand that the international community is now very focused on Iraq, on Syria, but let’s be clear what is happening in Nigeria is very similar to what is happening in Syria. It is the same kind of problem and it requires the same kind of commitment, the same type of support from the international community. … Every country in the world needs to understand that Cameroon is not protecting only itself, Cameroon is protecting all of us.”

The president of the refugee community in the camp, Isaac Luka, said the latest influx of refugees has strained the camp beyond capacity to meet urgent needs.

“Water is the most important thing we need very urgent,” he said. “Water, because water is life. People go from here to about two or three kilometers to fetch water and they carry it on their heads. You know women are not strong enough to carry 15 liters of water from there but they have to carry it because there is no water.”

According to nurse Adepouli Marceline, the shortage of food in the camp is taking a toll on children. She said they are attending to 361 children with severe malnutrition - most of whom just arrived at the camp. She said they are only authorized to give free treatment to children between 6 months and 5 years of age.

In an interview with VOA earlier this week in Geneva, UNHCR spokeswoman Karin de Gruijl said the refugee agency hopes to move the displaced Nigerians away from the border area to safer camps inland because of the constant danger of attacks.

Instability and violence in the region has caused a flood of people to flee to Cameroon - including nearly a quarter million people from the Central African Republic.