There is a crisis in the Lake Chad region. Years of conflict have forced people to leave their homes and search for safety and food. In many areas, cut-off from the outside world, the extent of human suffering remains largely unknown, but predictably desperate.
I recently travelled to the market town of Maroua, in northern Cameroon, where some of those forced to flee the violence have found refuge. But as the crisis continues, and their presence takes its toll on an already poor host community, their future is uncertain.
This is a humanitarian crisis that is here for the long haul.
Fleeing for their lives
For several years, the north-eastern part of Nigeria has been plagued by conflict, characterised by extreme violence against civilians. Modou remembers the day his village was attacked:
“It was a Wednesday. Market day,” he said.
“The whole village was there and every family was impacted by the violence in some way. Either their children were killed or a cousin or a neighbour. Many were injured. Everyone was affected.”
Modou is in his 40s. He sits across from me, wearing a yellow shirt and blue trousers. He speaks very good English.
“My house was burnt down and I lost everything. People fled the village in different directions – many just with the clothes they wore,” Modou said.
In 2013, the insurgency in Nigeria increased its foothold in neighbouring countries, drawing Cameroon, Chad and Niger into the conflict.
Huge numbers of people – around 2.4 million – have fled the fighting for safety across and within borders.
I asked why Modou thought his village was attacked.
“We don’t understand their objective,” he said with dismay.
Problems in refuge
Although the communities I met with in Maroua have found safety, life is difficult.
Many share the same ethnic and religious background as the insurgency, meaning they are often ostracised by their host communities.
They can be excluded from accessing a range of resources and services, like education for their children.
“Our children cannot go to school here because we left our ID and official papers back in the village,” one woman said.
“People do not want us here but what can we do? We cannot return until there is stability.”
Their presence also has consequences for the existing communities of Maroua.
These communities are among the poorest in the world, placing huge pressures on already weak infrastructure.
When large numbers of people congregate in one place with limited resources, concerns around the spread of disease and food shortages heighten.
The situation in Maroua is fairly stable, for the time being, but across the Lake Chad region many are experiencing acute food shortages and dying from disease. Across the region, nearly 7.1 million people are severely food insecure.
The role of the Red Cross
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Cameroon Red Cross have been providing emergency assistance to thousands of displaced people and the communities hosting them.
In Maroua, this includes monthly food rations of rice, maize flour, beans, oil and salt, as well as mosquito nets, hygiene kits, bedding and kitchen utensils.
There is also support for agricultural activities, from giving seeds and fertiliser to training ‘extension workers’ – farmers who can train other farmers on improved techniques.
“With help from the Red Cross, things are starting to improve,” said one lady I met.
In 2017, the Red Cross plans to support further by vaccinating over 600,000 livestock and helping people set up small-scale businesses. But we’re also looking towards distributing cash instead of goods.
The British Red Cross has been supporting the ICRC to pilot cash distributions in communities in Cameroon. The initial results are promising.
The benefits of giving cash are that it reduces the cost of buying, transporting, and storing goods, stimulates the local economy, and it gives people more choice.
Some families are even able to save a little of the cash to then buy assets to help earn an income.
Moving forwards, I asked Modou what he felt the international community could do. On this, he is clear.
“Home is home. We want peace. We want the international community to try and help bring peace so that we can return home,” he said.
What’s not clear at this point is when or how that peace may come about.
This piece was writtern by Ben Webster, British Red Cross head of emergency response.
- Please donate to our emergency appeal.
- What is the Lake Chad crisis about? Read our Q&A.
- Read more: British Red Cross shocked by deaths of civilians and six Red Cross aid workers in Nigeria