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UN: Refugees From Baga Fighting Could Reach 20,000

Children stand near the scene of an explosion in a mobile phone market in Potiskum, Nigeria, Jan. 12, 2015.
Children stand near the scene of an explosion in a mobile phone market in Potiskum, Nigeria, Jan. 12, 2015.

The United Nations says about 13,000 refugees fled into Chad after last week’s attack on the northeastern Nigeria town of Baga, and thousands more could be on their way.

The estimated 13,000 people that have fled Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state into neighboring Chad since January 3 is already more than Nigeria’s neighbor received in the previous two years, according to UNHCR deputy representative in Chad Mamadou Dian Balde.

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In 2013, only about 500 refugees crossed into Chad, he said. In 2014, it was about 3,000.

“So in terms of numbers it is very, very large. But it is also in terms of pain, meaning hardship and the conditions these persons have gone through before reaching Chad, they are very, very, very difficult," said Balde. "If you hear testimonies from refugees, you understand that they left fear. Some of them had their parents and family members killed, so they had to flee these very painful conditions and these very difficult conditions.”

Most of the refugees who crossed into Chad are fleeing an attack by Boko Haram, the Nigerian extremist group that has been fighting for more than five years to establish strict Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria.

The group seized control of the fishing town of Baga and then, according to witness accounts, proceeded to set fire to thousands of buildings in the town and surrounding areas.

No one is sure how many people died in the attacks, but estimates range from between 150 to 2,000 people.

Balde said the number of people fleeing the attack could reach to 20,000.
Many of those who escaped Baga fled toward Lake Chad, and are now stuck on islands in the lake. Balde said UNHCR is rescuing these people, who may number up to 7,000.

“We have been able to relocate safely close to 2,000 persons, meaning that it has been quite a very difficult, and challenging situation. But there are other islands where UNHCR and other partners do not have access to. We are trying to find a way of bringing them to safer areas.”

Doctors Without Borders says another 5,000 Nigerians escaped from the Baga area to the Borno State capital, Maiduguri.