Thousands of Nigerians have fled vicious attacks by Boko Haram and sought refuge in Cameroon in the past 10 days, officials from Cameroon and the United Nations say.
Cameroonian authorities estimate at least 9,000 people have arrived in the country’s Far North Region, with more coming across the border. They say more than 1,500 other people have headed to Niger.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reports the new arrivals have fled recurrent attacks in the past three weeks in the Gwoza area in Nigeria’s Borno State.
But spokesman Adrian Edwards said even upon arrival in Cameroon, the refugees are not necessarily out of harm’s way.
"Even once they have crossed into Cameroon, they are still being pursued by insurgents," he said. "We have already started to relocate some of the refugees to a refugee camp where they can be in safer conditions."
But this is not so easy to do. Aid workers have had limited access to the border areas these past weeks because of the increasing insecurity, Edwards said. Despite the volatile situation, they were able to go to a northern town during the weekend, where they met new arrivals.
Nigerian villages deserted
Some of the newly arrived refugees are sleeping on the ground in schools and churches and some are staying with host families, Edwards said. Children are suffering poor health. The refugees have been telling UNHCR staff that everyone had fled for their lives and that their villages in northeast Nigeria are now empty.
Edwards said the UNHCR team on Sunday reached the Cameroonian border village of Koza and met a number of refugee women.
"They told us that when their homes were attacked in Nigeria’s Borno state, their husbands had sent them with their children into the surrounding mountains," he said. "They later saw heavy smoke coming from their village, which made them fear insurgents had burnt their homes. They have had no news from their husbands."
Relocation has begun
The UNHCR has begun relocating 80 of the new refugees, mainly women and children, from Koza to a refugee camp in Minawao, 120 kilometers from the border, Edwards said. The camp already hosts 6,000 Nigerians.
The UNHCR says the total number of refugees in Cameroon now stands at around 39,000. As Boko Haram attacks in northern Nigeria show no sign of letting up, the agency fears refugee numbers in Cameroon will continue to rise.