The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has begun a two-day visit to northern Cameroon to assess the condition of thousands of Nigerian refugees who have fled assaults by the militant group Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria.
Refugee chief Antonio Guterres also will meet with thousands of Cameroonians internally displaced due to cross-border attacks by the insurgents.
Cameroonian authorities estimate more than 74,000 Nigerian refugees have crossed into the Far North region of the country. This includes some 25,000 who fled there in the month of February alone. They reportedly escaped clashes between the regional military forces and Boko Haram insurgents in northeastern Nigeria.
The U.N. refugee agency said the high commissioner’s stop in Cameroon will be at the Minawao refugee camp, located about 90 kilometers from the regional capital, Maroua.
The camp houses nearly 33,000 Nigerian refugees who have been relocated from the dangerous border area with Nigeria.
UNHCR spokeswoman Karin de Gruijl said Guterres will hear firsthand testimonies from the refugees about the events that forced them to leave their homes. He also will assess conditions in the camp.
In an interview with the VOA, De Gruijl said the refugee agency is moving the Nigerian refugees to safer camps further inland because of the ever-present dangers along the border.
“It is difficult to agree or disagree with the refugees’ assessment on the security in the border areas. We know that for humanitarian organizations, it is too dangerous," she said. "We cannot go there, so we cannot give them any protection or assistance activities. That makes them very vulnerable and open to abuse and attacks, so that is one of the reasons. If they choose to stay in the border areas for whatever reason, that is their choice. Relocation is voluntary.”
Despite the dangers, de Gruijl said many refugees prefer to stay close to the border. She said some are waiting for relatives who are fleeing to Cameroon. Others choose to remain to take care of their cattle or to return home as soon as the situation improves.
Cameroonians, who have been displaced by Boko Haram insurgents' cross-border attacks, now outnumber the Nigerian refugees.
De Gruijl said Guterres plans to meet with some of the estimated 96,000 internally displaced Cameroonians. She said he will offer UNHCR's support to help cover their most urgent needs.
“Most IDPs (internally displaced people) are living in host communities. That is why we want to have projects to strengthen the facilities of these host communities, including health and education," she said.
"There are several IDP sites. There are still spontaneous sites. Again, it is very difficult to reach them. We have been coordinating the response and we are trying to make sure that these people get the same type of assistance that the refugees are getting," de Gruijl said.
In addition to the Nigerians, Cameroon is hosting more than 244,000 refugees from the Central African Republic.
De Gruijl said the U.N. refugee chief will be meeting with Cameroon President Paul Biya to discuss the support needed to improve the living conditions of all refugees, as well as the internally displaced and the host communities helping them.
Guterres will end his mission with a short visit to Chad.