The Nation Newspaper (Nigeria) | There is a growing humanitarian crisis brewing at the Nigerian border communities in Cross River State, due to the political tension in Cameroon, Nicholas Kalu, who visited the communities reports.
THE land border in Mfum on the Nigerian axis and Ekok on the Cameroonian axis, that connects to Etung local government area in the central part of Cross River State is about six hours from Calabar, the state capital.
The rather sleepy town of Mfum has in the last few months been besieged by thousands of Cameroonians, especially those from the English speaking part of the country, who alleged persecution by their government for their political stance. They have swarmed the Cross River communities along the border in search of refuge.
Brewing humanitarian crisis
At the moment about 7,000 refugees have swelled the various communities of Utanga and Amana in Obanliku local government area, Danare in Boki local government area, and Ajassor and Agbokim in Etung local government area.
The situation has also come with attendant problems as facilities in the various communities have been overstretched.
There is no stopping the influx of refugees as they keep flocking in on a daily basis and there are fears that this could trigger humanitarian crisis if not quickly addressed. However, the communities have mobilized their resources to cater for the needs of the people.
At the moment the people are facing socio-economic challenges as they lack the basic needs such as foods, shelter and other necessities of life. Hundreds of the refuges sleep in the open and are exposed to the vagaries of the weather.
The challenges posed by the refugees are also telling on indigenes of the area who try to cope with their unexpected visitors. Mostly affected are women and children who constitute a greater number of the refugees. Many of the women, who are pregnant lack access to medical attention as health facilities in the communities, most of which are barely functional, cannot adequately cater for them. Also they lack the financial capacity to seek the kind of medical attention they require. This is because many of them fled their country over fear of government repression due to the agitation by the English part of the country for a separate country.
Most households in the communities are today accommodating more than 20 refugees thereby stretching their resources to the limit.
As a result of the influx, the open defecation free-status recently attained by a local government like Obanliku is being threatened, as the available toilet facilities can no longer contain the population of the refuges thus creating an environment for epidemic such as cholera.
Being ones brother’s keeper
Though the community leaders have expressed delight for being able to provide for the refugees, they complain that their facilities have been over stretched and would require immediate assistance from relevant authorities.
Clan Head of Utanga, Chief Joseph Suhumba said that they are hosting over one thousand refugees and that the communities have over stretched themselves with the provision of the basic need of the refugees.
He said they have incurred huge debts while caring for them and urged the state government to take over the management of the refugees.
According to him the influx of the people which is increasing by the day require compensative medical assessment and treatment, shelter, food and non-food items such as mattresses, beddings, towels, toiletries and other sundry needs.
One of the refuges, Mr. Toko Zacharia, who said he was the postmaster of Akwaya in Cameroon, said that he had to escape following an alleged plan by the authorities to arrest him over his involvement in the agitation for independence of the southern Cameroon.
Also, Mr. Abia Hillary said he spent several days in the bush without food and that he was lucky to drink from springs which abound in the hills and valley of Cameroon. He, however, lamented that he does not known the whereabouts of his family, who he feared might be hunted following his escape.
Another refugee, Agba Christopher said that he was the lucky one among so many youths in Akwaya community in Cameroon who were allegedly killed by government soldiers.
He lauded the people of Nigeria, most especially their host communities for their hospitality in spite of the obvious challenges of shelter, food and medical attention.
Mrs. Grace Ifemi, a mother of two, who was overwhelmed with tears while narrating her ordeal, said the attack by soldiers on her village created panic, which prompted the escape of the people of the community. She said that she was able to escape with just one child and her mother while the whereabouts of her husband and one other child were still unknown.
Though she is grateful for the benevolence of the community, despite the inadequacies, she wondered how long they would be able to sustain it. Her fear is that they may soon become a burden to the community and may be chased out soon.
However, the cheering news is that some of the children have been admitted into some schools in the area. For instance, a former student of Government High School, Akwaya, Fatima Tor, 13, who got enrolled in Emirem International Academy, Utanga, Obanliku said she was happy to be safe in Nigeria but feared for the lives of her parents who were still missing.
The Director General of the Cross River State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), Mr. John Inaku, said that the state government was abreast with the challenges of the refugees and assured they would try their best and work with relevant agencies to bring succour to the people.
He lauded the host communities for their magnanimity and called for sustenance.
On his part, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who had visited the communities to strategize on the management of the situation, expressed shock at the volume of the refugees.
The delegation which was led by Mr. John Inaku, expressed concern over the sorry condition and assured of partnership with both the state and federal governments to adequately address the situation.
Mr. Sam Agwa, also of the UNHCR described the state of refugees as worrisome as they apparently lacked the basic needs for their comfort.
He commended the host communities for their magnanimity saying it was unprecedented and assured that support would be rendered to them from the UNCHR with the provision of food and non-food items.
Another UNCHR official Mr. Mshilia Ibrahim, said that the refugees situation has assumed a global issue hence the intervention by the agents of the United Nations.
He noted that plans were been intensified to provide shelter for the refugees so as to make it conducive to manage the people and to give them a sense of belonging.
As a means to alleviate the suffering of the people, the UN agency has distributed relief materials said to be worth millions of naira to the refugees.
A 59 year old beneficiary, Madam Florence Okumo, who has a family of nine expressed joy over the gesture, describing the exercise as life saving. She said the material would go a long way in complementing the efforts of the host communities.
Another beneficiary, Abushi Glory thanked the UNHCR and the Nigerian government for the humanitarian service, which she said has restored hope to the distressed and agonizing migrants.
She recounted how she escaped for her life alongside some of her family members to Nigeria following the attack on her village, Akwaya in Southern Cameroon by soldiers, leaving several people dead.
According to her, she witnessed her tailoring equipment and cloths from her shop burnt, while two male youths were shot dead.
Mrs Agba Defime said they were surprised at the hospitable nature of Nigerians which she said is different from the impression they had before now.
The chief executive officer of RHEMA care, and implementing partner for UNHCR, Mr Eric Shu said that the distribution of the relief material was systematically done to ensure that all the asylum seekers benefitted.
He said that the exercise would also be carried out in Amana, the Ranch in Obanliku, Danare in Boki, Ikom and Ajassor in Etung local government areas.
The Community Relations Officer for Obanliku, Mr. Daniel Okono said that efforts were been made to contain the influx of the asylum seekers who are crossing the borders into Nigerian towns on daily basis.
Meanwhile, activities at the Cameroon-Nigeria border towns of Mfum have begun gathering momentum following the partial reopening of the Ekok border at the Cameroon axis.
Speaking with our correspondent, some of the businessmen in the area said it was a big relief for them since the Ekok border was reopened.
According to them, the unfortunate incident had paralyzed their businesses and most of the perishable goods on transit to both countries were trapped and had gone bad causing loss of millions of naira.