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Nigerian refugees strain Boko Haram-hit northeast

Thousands of Nigerian refugees uprooted by the jihadist group Boko Haram have returned home from Cameroon in recent weeks, piling pressure on aid agencies and communities in Nigeria's hungry northeast, United Nations officials said on Tuesday.

More than 11 000 returning refugees have arrived in theborder town of Banki, in Borno state.
More than 11 000 returning refugees have arrived in the border town of Banki, in Borno state, this month after food rations were cut in camps for the displaced in Cameroon, said the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs(OCHA).

Thousands of these returnees have moved to nearby Pulka - hugely increasing the need for emergency aid in a town where food and safe drinking water are already severely limited, and more arrivals are expected imminently, the UN agency said. "Some said they had returned because the food rations had been reduced by 25%, and that life in the camps was becoming extremely difficult," Nigeria's UN humanitarian coordinator, Edward Kallon, told a news briefing in Geneva. "But whether they were heading to an area where the situation was better is another question altogether," he added.

Aid agencies are planning for the possible return of 75 000 refugees - of a total 94 000 in Cameroon's Far North region - amid reports that the Cameroonian army is forcing people back home against their will, according to OCHA.

Cameroonian soldiers have this year sent home more than 2 600 refugees against their will to villages in northeast Nigeria, where insecurity persists and access to basic services remains limited, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said in March.

The two countries and the UNHCR signed an agreement in March stating that refugees residing in Cameroon who do not want to return to Nigeria will not be forced to do so. "We are worried about the returnees straining a region where people are already struggling to get by," said José AntonioCanhandula, Nigeria representative for UNHCR. "The returns (from Cameroon to Nigeria) are likely to continue until people realise that the conditions back home are not ideal," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The spike in returnees follows a warning from the UN. WorldFood Progamme (WFP) that 500 000 of the northeastern Nigeria's hungriest people could miss out on food aid next month as funds dry up.

About 4.7 million people in northeast Nigeria - where Boko Haram has waged an eight-year insurgency - need food aid, a number expected to rise to 5.2 million by August, the WFP says.

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