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Nigerian Refugees Trapped by Uptick in Boko Haram Violence

FILE - A man sells tomatoes under a tree at the Minawao refugee camp in Minawao, Cameroon.

Thousands of Nigerian refugees fleeing Boko Haram atrocities are trapped in difficult humanitarian and security conditions near Cameroon's northern border. They are crammed in a makeshift camp not far from another camp hosting 2,000 internally displaced Cameroonians.

Among the new arrivals at the camp on the outskirts of Kolofata is 51-year-old Nigerian cattle rancher Ibrahima Daouda. He fled his Gamboru-Ngala village in Borno state after a recent Boko Haram attack.

"We are afraid of Boko Haram," he said. "We are afraid that is why we ran and came here. They kill our people, cutting their necks, [burning] them. I used to load a trailer of cow and take it to Lagos, everywhere. But see how I am sitting without any thing to do. We are not having enough of food."

Daouda says they also lack medical care.

Some 1,200 Nigerians recently settled in the camp. In the last two weeks, 20 suicide bomb attacks have targeted the camp and surrounding villages.

Midjiyawa Bakari, governor of the far north region of Cameroon, said it will be better for all of the Nigerians to relocate.

He said Cameroon has made it abundantly clear that because the site is not secured and can be easily attacked by the insurgents, the refugees should go back to safer localities before the start of operations to return refugees who wish to go back to Nigeria.

The governments of Cameroon and Nigeria signed in a tripartite agreement with UNHCR in March stipulating that refugees who choose not to return to Nigeria should not be forced to go back.

Some of the refugees are asking to be taken to the nearby Minawao refugee camp.

Rene Emmanuel Sadi, Cameroon's minister of territorial administration and decentralization, says the camp, which was created to host 25,000 refugees, is now home to 75,000. The number had diminished to 60,000 last month when some refugees decided to return.

But with the increase in raids by the Nigerian army on Boko Haram's remaining strong holds in the Sambissa forest, and the multi-national joint task force fighting the insurgents, the population at Minawao swelled.

"We cannot continue to send people there and with the agreement of the Nigerian authorities of the border, we organize their return to their country in localities where they can live safely," Sadi said.

Roseline Okoro, assistant UNHCR representative in charge of refugee protection, says forced returns constitute a serious violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 OAU Convention, both of which Cameroon has ratified.

She says it's possible for CameroUptickon to protect both the refugees, its citizens, and its territory, and that is what the UNHCR has been requesting the government of Cameroon to do.

Besides the refugees, Cameroon says the number of internally displaced persons has also increased from barely 9,000 to 19,000 at the Kolofata camp within a month.

Earlier this month, the United Nations cautioned people against traveling to the Far North region of Cameroon, saying that the arrest of the Boko Haram commander in charge of the town of Kousseri had triggered a surge of violence. The government has not confirmed that arrest.