Boko Haram militants have largely been routed by the Nigerian army, but they have not disappeared and still pose a threat in the northern part of Borno State.
Boko Haram controlled some of northeast Nigeria at the start of last year, but it has been pushed out of most of that territory by the Nigerian army, aided by troops from neighboring Cameroon, Niger and Chad, Reuters reported in September.
Geneva-based officials representing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) say security in northern Nigeria remains fragile and that people who have suffered for years at the hands of Boko Haram are living in fear of renewed attacks from the militant group.
Over the past two weeks, U.N. aid workers have been interviewing community leaders and individuals in a number of newly accessible areas of Borno State to learn their needs and concerns.
UNHCR spokesman William Spindler says they have assessed the situation in towns like Monguno, Bama, Damboa and Shani.
“They have found similar patterns in these places of a high level of vulnerability among people displaced by Boko Haram,” he said, “with nearly every family affected by very worrying protection issues and that some of these people live in fear that the insurgency group could attack them again.”
Spindler says the displaced people are living in desperate conditions.
For example, he said more than 60,000 people who fled to Monguno largely from the Marte local government area, are living in dilapidated school buildings and makeshift shelters in nine sites.
They are suffering food shortages, he said, yet they continue to arrive in Monguno to escape the Nigerian military’s ongoing operations to dislodge Boko Haram from the northern part of Borno State.
Spindler says women and children are particularly vulnerable. Many families are headed by women, he said, because their husbands were killed by Boko Haram, were forced to join the insurgents or disappeared.
He tells VOA these people have lived under the brutal rule of Boko Haram for a long time and are having difficulty recovering from the experience.
“They are traumatized,” he said. “They are in need of help. Some of the problems that we see are related to the fact that they do not have the necessary aid or livelihoods. So, that is why we see some of these negative coping mechanisms like survival sex and other practices.”
Spindler says women are forced to send their children, some as young as 5, to sell small items or beg in the street so they can buy food and medicine. Others, he says, send children to collect firewood to sell. This puts the girls at risk of sexual attack.
Few of the refugees are likely to return to their home villages soon because of continuing insecurity and the presence of land mines in their villages and fields, Spindler said.
Boko Haram is blamed for about 20,000 deaths since beginning its insurgency in northern Nigeria in 2009. The Islamist extremist group says it wants to create a strict Islamic state in Muslim-majority northern Nigeria.