The Minawao Refugee Camp, located in the Far North Region of Cameroon, is a place I know well. I visited the camp which hosts refugees fleeing the violence of Boko Haram last May to see some of the work being done in camp.
As you arrive, the challenges are clear almost immediately. Even before you enter the camp, you see long lines of newly arrived refugees waiting to be processed and admitted. It’s no wonder the camp has swollen to 58,000 since 2013 even though it was only set up to accommodate a maximum of 20,000 people. The truly worrying fact is that 61% of the refugee population are children, and 53% are women.
Growing insecurity, massive population growth and severe vulnerability from a changing climate, environmental degradation, poverty and under-investment in social services has left record numbers of people in need of emergency relief in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
Almost one in every two people in the region, that’s an estimated 9.2 million people, need urgent help. Of that number, over 3.3 million are severely food insecure and need urgent support.
Across the four countries, 50% of the 2.7 million that are displaced (incl. 1.8 million internally displaced in Nigeria alone), are children.
Women and children bear the heaviest burden when it comes to violence and migration. Here, and across the globe, they are the ones most heavily affected. Boko Haram’s preferred weapons of war, rape and sexual slavery, means that women and children suffer some of the worst atrocities.
Sexual slavery and forced marriage are weapons used to exercise power and control over the population in the areas controlled by Boko Haram. Women and girls are abducted, given to Boko Haram fighters as a reward for their efforts and forced to kill.
Throughout the camp, you hear whispers about of women and young girls who experienced sexual violence. They aren’t seen though as, more often than not, they are hidden from the community by their family because of the stigma associated with rape.
UN agencies are reporting significant recruitment of children, in particular girls and young women, as suicide bombers. The fact many girls are forced to blow themselves up, following abduction and rape, has led to increased stigmatisation and social acceptance by the community of harmful practices such as early and forced marriage.
During my visit, I meet with Esther, a women from Nigeria who works as an early childhood educator in the camp and was a refugee herself. She and some parents of children in the ECCD centre go into vivid detail of them fleeing their homes to escape violence and how they, and their children, have struggled to cope with the emotional trauma of their experiences.
Esther says that some of the children in the centre are on their own- they lost their parents either in the violence or on the journey to Cameroon. She worries that they will become victims again, this time of sexual abuse and trafficking
A Director of the school, set up by UNHCR in the refugee camp, told me that many children have difficulties concentrating in class, and tend to isolate themselves from other children in the school.
I’m worried about the education of so many children. Quite simply, the number of classrooms isn’t sufficient for all the school children. By early 2016, 952,000 school age children have fled the violence in North East Nigeria
Boko Haram, which translated from the original Hausa means “Western education is forbidden,” has targeted and killed teachers, education workers and students.
Their impact has been nothing but destructive. Between 2009 and 2015 more than 910 schools were destroyed in north-eastern Nigeria and at least 1,500 forced were forced to close. As people move to escape the violence, so too do Boko Haram who have crossed the Nigerian border with Chad, Cameroon and Niger bringing with them move violence and terror. More than 20 million people are being affected by Boko Haram, and their destruction is there for all to see.
Suicide bombings and raids targeting civilians in villages and in cities around the Lake Chad basin have caused widespread trauma, prevented people from accessing essential services and destroying vitally important local infrastructure.
Plan International Ireland has been on the ground since 2015 by providing assistance to the affected displaced and host communities’ in Cameroon (Far North Region) and Niger (Diffa).
Considering that half the displaced population are children, and 700,000 of these are under five years of age, we’re rightly focusing on increasing access to education, both early childhood and primary, and improving child protection services for vulnerable children and adolescents.
This is a crisis that could very quickly become one of Africa’s largest displacement crisis. More resources and funding are urgently needed to address urgent humanitarian needs in an overlooked region.