By: see credits. From Maiduguri, Kaduna, and Yola in Nigeria, and Kousseri in Cameroon

Before Boko Haram existed, the herders and fishermen of the Lake Chad Basin region already had their work cut out.

An ecological nightmare has caused the lake to dry up. In the space of 40 years, it shrank from 15,000 square miles to just 500. Waterfront towns like Baga in northeastern Nigeria became stranded inland, surrounded by desert. As the vegetation and water disappeared, survival got harder, drought and hunger more routine. However, the lake is still a vital resource, and the region an important trading crossroads. Farmers and fishermen found ways to adapt. To really get people to leave in big numbers, it took a disaster entirely of human creation: the intensification, since 2014, of the Boko Haram conflict into a rampage of bombings, abductions and slaughter.

In Europe, Syrian refugees with the means head for their country of choice, armies of aid workers and volunteers helping them along much of the way. In West Africa, Nigerians displaced by Boko Haram have relatively little help and find refuge where they can. Some walk hundreds of miles, crossing the border into neighbouring Chad, Niger or Cameroon. The majority remain as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Nigeria, coalescing in and around cities like Maiduguri, reliant on the kindness of friends or extended family to get by, or crowded in school campuses converted into unsanitary IDP camps.

Lingering insecurity prolongs the displacement and deepens the economic malaise. Bans on vehicles, horses and donkeys to prevent militants from resupplying have a knock-on effect on rural communities, closing down markets and trade, and driving up prices. After two lean years, the current harvest has been badly hit by the conflict once again and production through March 2016 is expected to be lower. Food availability is at crisis levels.

“Farmers cannot access their fields. Herders have either left their cattle behind or cannot travel along ancestral migration routes,” the UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel region, Toby Lanzer, tells IRIN.

“Cross-border trade is virtually cut off, with an associated fall in revenue for the local communities. A missed harvest will bear serious consequences in terms of food insecurity, malnutrition or vulnerability to epidemics, and we risk seeing more and more people join the ranks of those relying on humanitarian assistance for their survival.”

More than 2.5 million people have been displaced in the region since May 2013 – around four times the number of migrants and refugees that have arrived in Europe so far this year. Some 1.6 million people are displaced in Nigeria’s northeastern state of Borno alone. The vast majority, an estimated 90 percent, end up not in camps but with host communities or in informal settlements. Despite an initial exodus as the Boko Haram threat emerged, and despite being the target of ongoing attacks, the population of the state capital Maiduguri has more than doubled in size.

“I didn’t leave for fear of the insurgents. I left to protect my sons from being recruited into Boko Haram.”
— Malama Asabe, mother

Due to the security situation, UN agencies and international NGOs have a limited presence in the northeast. Local NGOs and the Red Cross work in cooperation with Nigeria's National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA) to bring some food and medical aid to those who need it, but hundreds of thousands of people are still barely able to support themselves on a day-to-day basis.

MOHAMMED GARIMA* fled his village 90 kilometres to the north last year because of Boko Haram. He now lives in a small house in Maiduguri with his family, but is also sheltering a further 12 people displaced by the violence: 20 under one small roof.

“People are passing through very serious difficulties,” Garima tells IRIN. “The rural areas are now a no-go area so nearly everybody is in Maiduguri. But here there is scarcity of food, of money.

Mohammed Garima* (Obi Anyadike/IRIN)

Mohammed Garima* (Obi Anyadike/IRIN)

“The aid [the government] promised us – we haven’t seen it since we came 14 months ago. I don’t even have 50 naira (25 cents) in my pocket. Everybody is sleeping on empty stomachs.”

Until the end of last year, 50-year-old Ali Buno was a bus driver in Monguno, a garrison town in northern Borno State surrounded by a thriving farming community. Boko Haram seized Monguno in January 2015 as well as an army base at nearby Baga, killing hundreds of people, many of them civilians. Weeks before the massacre, Buno fled with his wife, his five children and his parents.

“Since we left the town, I’ve been living without a job,” he says. "We are now in the hands of God as there is nobody to help us apart from our relations that we live with in Maiduguri.”

Unlike IDPs in camps, these urban refugees living with friends and family, or fending for themselves on the streets, are not registered by the government and therefore not entitled to handouts like food, clothing and medical care. Community-based assistance here is in its infancy, although aid agencies are increasingly aware of the scale of the urban crisis.

“There are now many IDPs from the northeast living with relations across northern Nigeria without any humanitarian assistance getting to them because they are not documented at government-designated IDP camps,” says Baba Oliver, from Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission. “The local aid agencies and the government need to do more by reaching out [to them].”

DOZENS OF TOWNS AND VILLAGES in northeastern Nigeria that were taken by militants last year have been liberated following recent gains by the Nigerian military.

Nigerian refugees prepare millet outside a refugee camp in Niger's Diffa region (Boureima Balima)

Nigerian refugees prepare millet outside a refugee camp in Niger's Diffa region (Boureima Balima)

Tens of thousands of apprehensive residents from towns like Michika and Madagali have been trickling back in recent months, despite Boko Haram attacks continuing in the more remote villages.

Abandoned vehicles, burnt buildings, destroyed farmland and the stench of decomposed bodies provide constant reminders of what has gone before and what could happen again.

Most health centres in the region remain closed. Many doctors and other professionals were either killed or have fled for good. In Mubi, the second largest town and a main commercial hub in Adamawa State, some markets have reopened, but the usual hustle and bustle has been replaced by an eerie quiet.

Abandoned schools have been taken over by rodents and reptiles. Once-thriving businesses have been looted and vandalised.

“[There are] no hospitals, no banks,” James Adbwu Watharda, a community leader in Madagali, tells IRIN. “[Our] lives [are] gradually picking up, but people have to travel to Yola [200 kilometres away] for bank transactions. We are urging the relevant authorities to come to our rescue.”

Before the Boko Haram invasion, hundreds of trucks transported commodities in and out of Mubi every day. Even if trade is restored, this would now be impossible. The main bridges linking the towns of Mubi, Michika and Madagali were destroyed by insurgents and have still not been repaired. While people on foot and small vehicles can cross a narrow path that traverses the river, roads remain impassable for the heavy trucks carrying food and other goods that people rely on for their survival.

Apart from military bases and security checkpoints, few government institutions are functioning.

IN THE DISPLACEMENT CAMPS dotted around Borno and the neighbouring northeastern states of Yobe, Gombe and Adamawa, finding a path back to self-sufficiency seems even less likely.

In Gombyo camp, just outside Maiduguri, some 8,000 people share 82 latrines. One clinic with 10 health workers tends to their needs, physical and emotional. A cholera epidemic that struck in September has claimed 20 lives and infected some 1,500 people, prompting Médecins Sans Frontières to issue a plea for help.

Aliyu Abubakar, a fisherman from Kukalor LGA, who now lives in the Gombyo camp, is no longer able to earn a living fishing due to the threat of violence from Boko Haram (Fragkiska Megaloudi/IRIN)

Aliyu Abubakar, a fisherman from Kukalor LGA, who now lives in the Gombyo camp, is no longer able to earn a living fishing due to the threat of violence from Boko Haram (Fragkiska Megaloudi/IRIN)

The majority of the people here come from towns like Baga and Monguno and the rural villages in between: fishermen, former livestock traders and their families. Most have been here for more than a year, and the prospect of return, with deadly clashes still being reported back home every week, is distant.

In the middle of the camp, a group of men sit under a large tree sharing freshly brewed tea. They repair fishing nets, although there is nowhere to go fishing any more.

Before the insurgency, these men used to make a good living. A carton of fish could be sold for 10,000 to 12,000 naira ($50-60) and they were selling an average of eight cartons per day. Now, they have nothing.

Abubakar Mohamed is 54 years old. He owned a small fishing business that allowed him to support his family of eight. When Boko Haram attacked his village, he saw his three older sons slaughtered by the extremists. He was separated from the rest of his family and fled to neighbouring Chad, and then to Niger.

“I saw the bodies of my dead sons lying in front of our house.”
— Abubakar Mohamed, fisherman

It is estimated that out of the 187,000 Nigerian refugees who fled to neighbouring countries, 105,000 sought refuge in Niger. Many were fishermen like Abubakar and became concentrated around the shores of Lake Chad. But five months ago Boko Haram attacked fishermen on an island on the lake, prompting the authorities to deport some 4,000 people back to Nigeria. Mohamed was brought to Gombyo camp.

“I saw the bodies of my dead sons lying in front of our house,” Mohamed recalls. “After that, my wife got sick in her mind. I want to go back and help my wife get well. But I cannot. All I have is the clothes I wear.”

HUNDREDS WERE KILLED when Boko Haram militants seized the market town of Gamboru-Ngala near the Cameroonian border in May 2014. They recruited young men and boys, killing those who refused, and took young women and girls as trophy wives and slaves. Malama Asabe managed to escape with her five children. She now rents a small apartment in Badarawa, a suburb of Kaduna, one of the main cities in northwestern Nigeria. Her husband took refuge in Cameroon.

“I didn’t leave for fear of the insurgents,” Asabe tells IRIN. “I left to protect my sons from being recruited into Boko Haram.”

Many Nigerians were cut off from fleeing south when Boko Haram came, so, like Asabe’s husband, they crossed into Cameroon and sought refuge there instead.

The violence followed them.

Cross-border attacks began earlier this year followed by a string of suicide bombings in Cameroon’s Far North Region, where more than 80,000 people have now been displaced.

“Boko Haram set fire to all the houses,” explains Asta Bamba Bodo, one of 7,700 people who fled the Cameroonian town of Kousseri, on the Chadian border. “We fled into the marshes, where we stayed until the arrival of the military. I lost everything.”

IDPs in northern Cameroon often build temporary shelters using woven straw and dried grass (Sylvestre Tetchiada/IRIN)

IDPs in northern Cameroon often build temporary shelters using woven straw and dried grass (Sylvestre Tetchiada/IRIN)

Like Bodo, the majority of the IDPs here still live in makeshift shelters or among host communities. Lacking formal assistance, many sleep on sheets on the ground, others under trees. The more fortunate find refuge in classrooms or churches.

“We are also victims of war, but nobody cares for us,” Leopold Mallahe, another refugee from Kousseri, tells IRIN. “Why are we always forgotten when people are distributing food and other basic necessities?”

Much of the focus surrounding Boko Haram has been on Nigeria, but the conflict has splintered in recent months and there has been an increasing spillover into Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

The UN says 1.8 million people require humanitarian assistance in Cameroon, where there are now more than 150,000 Nigerian refugees and internally displaced Cameroonians in the Far North Region, the poorest area of the country.

“The tragedy of northern Cameroon is one of the many forgotten wars that nobody talks about,” says Fabio Mussi, coordinator of the local aid organisation Codas-Caritas. “The levels of food insecurity and malnutrition are critical.” 

AS THE NUMBER OF SUICIDE BOMBINGS and cross-border attacks has risen, the Cameroonian authorities have become increasingly jittery. They banned Islamic headscarves and instituted a number of other security measures, including the controversial deportation of thousands of Nigerians who had taken up temporary refuge within host communities or were sleeping rough – ostensibly a move to guard against infiltration by Islamist extremists or potential suicide bombers.

IDPS returning from Cameroon at Fufore IDP camp queuing for medical check up at a local clinic (  Ibrahim Abdul'Aziz  )

IDPS returning from Cameroon at Fufore IDP camp queuing for medical check up at a local clinic (Ibrahim Abdul'Aziz)

See: Nigerians who fled Boko Haram forced home

Nigerian emergency aid officials say the Cameroonian police have been rounding up thousands of refugees, loading them onto vehicles and simply dumping them at the border. There are accusations, roundly denied by the Cameroonian authorities, that some died in dangerously overcrowded transport conditions.

Yakura Ba’ana, a young mother with an infant child who fled to Cameroon last year, relates how she and her baby nearly lost their lives after being forced into one such “cattle truck” in early August.

“Little children were perched on the iron bars on top of the truck. Those on the floor could not breathe properly. Many defecated and urinated in the truck because the driver refused to stop throughout the 24-hour journey to the border. Some people died in the truck.”

Iva,* who had been living in Cameroon’s Kusiri town for more than a year – working as a housemaid after Boko Haram attacked her village and killed her family – was also sent back to Nigeria in August.

“It was terrible,” Iva says. “I watched a woman and her three kids die of suffocation due to the congestion. She fell down and other passengers stepped on her because everybody was trying to find a space, as well as hold onto the moving vehicle. It was survival of the fittest.”

WHEREVER THEY FLEE, whether to the nearest town or city, to a camp, or across the border, the reality for most displaced people is that the initial uprooting is only the first stage in a long and painful journey to try to rebuild their life.

Kasper Engborg, head of Nigerian operations for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body OCHA, says about 60 percent of families internally displaced in northeastern Nigeria have been forced to flee several times due to violence and then a lack of access to basic needs such as food and water.

“The coping capacity of IDPs and the communities hosting the millions displaced across northeast Nigeria is being exhausted at an alarming rate.”
— Kasper Engborg, head of Nigerian operations for OCHA

“Beyond the economic impact and growing vulnerability of families who risk being separated with each new displacement, and each time lose more of their meagre assets, the coping capacity of IDPs and the communities hosting the millions displaced across northeast Nigeria is being exhausted at an alarming rate,” Engborg says. This is “increasing the dependence of affected populations on humanitarian actors reaching them with much-needed assistance.”

Even for those who end up with relatives in major cities like Maiduguri or Kaduna, this is normally only a temporary arrangement. Host families can often barely support themselves, let alone indulge others. With little prospect of employment and several mouths to feed, many move on again, desperately trying to hustle out an existence wherever they can.

A problem that began with conflict and displacement has quickly developed into an urban poverty crisis, and one that the Nigerian government and the international aid community have no immediate answers for, especially when it is compounding long-standing structural issues related to under-development, high birthrates and low literacy levels.

NEMA PLAYS THE LEAD ROLE in responding. It is clearly struggling to cope with enormity of the challenge. The fact that the vast majority of IDPs are not in the camps but living in host communities, places obvious limitations on what NEMA, or the international and local aid agencies, can achieve.

However, Lanzer, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, sees this as the lesser of two evils.

IDP women in Maiduguri, sheltering with relatives and friends (Obi Anyadike)

IDP women in Maiduguri, sheltering with relatives and friends (Obi Anyadike)

“Camps or camp-like settings should always be the last resort,” he says. “Camps are easier for aid agencies. There’s no question about that. If you have a clear number of people who are within a camp, of course it’s easier logistically. It’s easier to keep an eye on people, to work with kids, to help people suffering from trauma – all of that is true. But for people themselves if they can stay with a host family or even eke out enough of a living to pay for a room to rent – it’s more empowering. It is better for people in the long run to be in such a setting.”

Lanzer says it can’t just be those in the camps who are getting the help, as the statistics he has seen show that 1.3 million people in northeastern Nigeria have received medical care, 650,000 have received food aid, and 90,000 displaced children have been enrolled in education.

“The fact that you are not in a camp does not equate to not getting help. It does make it a little trickier, a lit bit harder: it means we need to dig deeper to find out where people might be. But there has been a concerted effort these last few months by aid agencies up in Maiduguri to do just that.”

He admits that not enough is being done, saying there is a “lack of human and material resources to keep up with the escalating need,” but recognises the limitations of what can be achieved in the middle of such a conflict.

“We won’t be able to work in all the rural areas and all the areas where people want to return… because of security and the asymmetric nature of the violence, we do need to be very, very careful.”

He also betrays his frustration at the overloaded humanitarian system, for which Boko Haram’s displacement crisis might simply be one emergency too many.

“Whether its South Sudan or Iraq or Syria or lots of recurring crises in Afghanistan or on this continent, all of us have been very stretched in the last 24 months. And so no way am I pointing a finger or saying this as a criticism, but it’s a recognition that more needs to be done.”

* Not his real name

From a collection of stories:
Displaced in urban Nigeria, by Mohammad Ibrahim
No reprieve for IDPs in Borno State, by Fragkiska Megaloudi    
Displaced then forgotten, by
Sylvestre Tetchiada and Mohammad Ibrahim 
From refugee to IDP, by Ibrahim Abdul’Aziz
No longer in the hands of Boko Haram but still struggling, by Ibrahim Abdul’Aziz

Additional reporting by Obi Anyadike in Kaduna

Edited by Jennifer Lazuta and Andrew Gully. Cover photo by Boureima Balima