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Internally displaced persons in northeast Nigeria

Nigeria’s refugee crisis

Nigeria has a serious internal refugee crisis in the northeast as as a result of the conflict with Boko Haram.

The Financial Times looks at the problem in this report.

November 12, 2015

Echoes of Europe’s refugee crisis in north Nigeria
Maggie Fick

Chaotic influx of people fleeing war shows the best and worst of humanity, writes Maggie Fick

The city of Maiduguri has been targeted by militants from Boko Haram, the terror group that has over-run towns and villages north and east of Yola

Ibrahim Bilal was a wealthy man by the standards of Nigeria’s impoverished north-east.

Until a year ago, the farmer and his family — four wives and 30 children — lived in two houses in the small city of Yola, which is ringed by cornfields stretching east towards mountains that form the border with Cameroon. Mr Bilal’s small business, selling cement and foam mattresses, supplemented the family income.

Then militants from Boko Haram, the Islamist terror group, over-ran many of the towns and villages north and east of Yola, forcing communities to run for their lives. About half a million people ended up in the city, hungry and dazed. The influx more than doubled Yola’s population.

The government was slow to respond. The International Rescue Committee, initially the only international relief group with a significant presence, did what it could but the needs were more than any one group could handle.

Mr Bilal stepped up. He took in 181 people and began spending his life’s savings — primarily on food for his guests but also to build an annexe to shelter some of the displaced and to buy medicine. An interfaith group pitched in to keep people fed.

“Many got sick. Malaria, typhoid, general diseases,” Mr Bilal told me, sitting in his sparse living room as a fan noisily moved hot air around.

“We thank God we did not have any incidents of death”, he said proudly. He paused. “Except my mother.” Having fled their home town of Michika at the age of 102 when Boko Haram seized it in September 2014, she died at her son’s home this year.

Some of the people who lived with Mr Bilal and his family were relatives. The majority were not, but he said his prosperous family could not turn away the strangers.

Most of those he helped have headed home through areas retaken by the Nigerian army, hoping to plant next year’s crop before the end of the rainy season. A handful of children who lost their parents have stayed and are at school with Mr Bilal’s own. “They have nowhere to go,” he says.

Mr Bilal’s generosity is not exceptional. In Yola I met several families who had each taken in up to a few dozen people. Hassan Coulibaly of the IRC told me that 90 per cent of those who fled to the city a year ago have been cared for by the community. “You open your hand and help”, he said, describing the response. Even those with barely enough food for themselves do what they can. Sitting outside her mud-brick home — which, like most houses here, has no regular electricity or running water — Mariam Saidou tells me how she convinced a neighbour to let 67 people stay in his half-built new home. This was after she had kept 48 people in her small courtyard, feeding them some of the corn she had harvested and collecting a few sacks from neighbours. “I would do this for anyone,” she says.

The story of Yola strikes me as relevant as I follow the migration crisis in Europe from afar. It seems that the chaotic influx of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa has put the very best and worst of humanity on display. As European communities from Kos to Calais become de facto hosts, the responses of authorities and residents has ranged from fear and anger to generosity and compassion.

It would be easy to say people such as Mr Bilal are more likely to help refugees because they have closer links to those they support. Mr Bilal rejects such thinking. “All of us are from God. Muslims, Christians, we are all human beings. So I don’t say I’m helping a Muslim or a Christian. No, I’m helping a human being like me. What’s happened to him, you pray it won’t happen to you, but maybe some time it will. And whenever you help somebody, God will help you maybe more than you have done.”

He mentions the crises in Syria and Afghanistan and draws a link to the evil devastating his own country: both tragedies are driven by groups with violent ideologies trying to hijack the meaning of Islam.

It is worth keeping the words of Mr Bilal in mind. We in the west should not forget that the vast majority of the world’s displaced are hosted in nations like Nigeria and Lebanon, whose citizens and governments have far fewer resources.

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