GENEVA - The United Nations refugee agency says it is very concerned about the return of hundreds of refugees from Niger to Maiduguri, capital of Borno State in Nigeria.
The agency reports hundreds of refugees were transported in nine buses to Maiduguri on Wednesday, in a joint operation organized by the governor of Borno state and the authorities in Niger.
The UNHCR says another 11 buses currently are parked in the town of Gagamari in Niger’s Diffa region, waiting to take back more refugees to Nigeria.
UNHCR officials on Friday called on authorities in both countries to halt to the operation, which it says put the refugees in the path of violence associated with militant group Boko Haram.
Spokesman William Spindler tells VOA his agency is trying to ascertain the nature of these returns. He says the UNHCR is very concerned because it does not know whether people are returning voluntarily or not.
“Given the situation in Nigeria at the moment, any returns to Nigeria are of great concern to us, particularly since UNHCR was not informed of these returns and we have not been involved in them," Spindler said. "But, we do not know the details yet. We do not know how many people have gone back and whether they have gone back of their own free will or not.”
By all accounts, security in Borno state is shaky at best. Spindler says the recent attacks by Boko Haram insurgents in the town of Baga show the extreme danger to the population.
He says the UNHCR has asked authorities to stop the refugee returns until proper safeguards are in place. He adds it appears the returns have stopped for now.
No one can access the Baga region, so information regarding deaths and the extent of destruction is scant. Some local officials have said up to 2,000 people died in the recent violence. That figure is disputed by the Nigerian government, which puts the death toll at 150.
In any case, there is no dispute thousands of refugees have been fleeing the brutal conflict. Spindler says the refugees arriving in Niger and Chad tell harrowing tales of killings and destruction.
“A woman who ran away from Baga with her five children and her husband, said she saw insurgents run over women and children with their cars, shoot at people and use knives to cut their throats in the street. She estimated that hundreds had been killed in Baga," Spindler said. "The terrified family managed to escape at night before reaching Maiduguri, from where they took a bus to Niger.”
The UNHCR spokesman says people who cross the border into Niger are living in makeshift settlements where they are extremely vulnerable. He says aid workers are trying to move these people away from the dangerous border area to a camp further inland.