The UN marks World Refugee Day on June 20th annually in order to bring global attention to the plight and suffering of children, women and men who flee their homes under threats of persecution, conflict and violence; and celebrates their perseverance, determination and resilience. In celebration, Doctors Health Initiative (DHI) seeks to create awareness on internal displacement in Nigeria.
The internally displaced person in Nigeria faces various challenges:
- The almost non-existent government attention given to IDPs translates literally to total self-dependence. Feeding ranks amongst the greatest challenge IDPs face. They lack the financial means to feed themselves and depend on government handouts and donations from individuals, organizations and NGOs.
- There is no guarantee of safety for IDPs in the camps. They are still at the risk of attacks from armed militia or armed groups. Where there is violence in the areas surrounding the camp, it may be difficult for aid workers to get relief materials to the camp.
- Female IDPs suffer the risk of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). Attacks may lead to abduction and rape of women and girls. Females may place themselves in positions to be exploited in a bid to escape unbearable living conditions. In some cases, the fear of stigmatization and ignorance has prevented rape victims from resorting to legal redress.
- Exploitation and abuse from host communities and the government. They occasionally face animosity from the host communities. Within the camp, factions created along religious or tribal lines which do not encourage harmonious interactions may exist. Officials are wont to exploit the lackadaisical attitude of government and make profit off materials and funds made available for the care of IDPs.
- The living conditions in IDP camps are pathetic. The IDPs live in makeshift and unsuitable shelter constructed from either wood, zinc, bamboo, polythene or palm fronds or a combination of these materials. Some take shelter in schools, government buildings and uncompleted buildings; and those who manage to flee with a fair amount of money resort to renting apartments. They may lack the financial ability to renew their rent upon expiration. The shelters usually offer little protection from the elements of the weather. Large families are oftentimes cramped into small spaces. Makeshift toilets and bathrooms are the norm and where there are not available, the surrounding bushes become restrooms. Waste evacuation is non-existent. Diseases are rife.
- IDPs lack access to quality healthcare. The unsanitary conditions at camps and lack of medical attention aggravates sicknesses, the spread of diseases and epidemics. Where pregnant women and babies are denied pre-natal and ante-natal care, it is not unusual to record deaths of pregnant women at childbirth. Very few camps have inadequately equipped clinics. IDPs in unofficial camps or who may be living with relatives have not been taken into consideration.
- For the IDPs sheltered in official camps, their freedom of movement is restricted. There are no unauthorized visits to the camp. Understandably, this may be government’s means of putting a check on excesses in camp, still yet, the limitation hampers IDPs ability to sufficiently fend for themselves bearing in mind that government’s assistance barely goes far.
- IDPs are not offered psychosocial support. Many of them have undergone severe emotional trauma or distress. Memories such as being nearly hacked to death, witnessing the killing of a family member, the unexplained disappearance of friends or family members or just the struggle to adjust to life in the cities where they lack social safety nets can take a psychological toll that requires professional medical attention.(Matthew Mpoke Bigg)
- Families may be separated whilst fleeing. There is presently, no family tracing system in the country to link IDPs with family members who may have been abducted or missing. Unaccompanied children run the risk of becoming permanent orphans. Missing or abducted persons may never be accounted for.
- IDPs lack documentation. Most barely escape the violence in their communities, leaving their possessions behind; some others have had to leave because their houses or villages were burned down along with all their property; and a few others have their means of identification seized, stolen or missing whilst fleeing. Not having a means of identification could affect the IDP’s chances of getting a job and other benefits.
- For IDP children, education may be halted for the period they remain displaced. In camps where there has been an effort to provide education, makeshift schools are built; children depend on charity organizations or NGOs for books and learning materials; and the teaching standards cannot neither be evaluated nor enforced.
IDPs will sometimes resort to harmful coping mechanisms for survival. Child labour, early or forced marriage, prostitution, drug abuse, poor nutrition, family separation, petty theft become necessary to survive.
A lot of work needs to be done to tackle these challenges. Government has to play a decisive role in solving the internal displacement dilemma. It needs to firmly tackle the security challenges in the country. Doing so will guarantee that at least half of the displacement issues in Nigeria will be solved. The Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Ministry of the Environment, National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and other related agencies should take the lead in committing to understanding and employing early warning systems. These systems help to detect disasters. The benefit will be an elimination of the haphazard panic- infested solutions and instead strategic, co-ordinated measures taken by government. The formulation and employment of a line of action to help resettle IDPs and help them rebuild their lives is necessary. Government should work with stakeholders in employment, health, housing, education and other sectors to build a mechanism that makes it possible. Nutrition, healthcare, education and security at IDP camps nationwide are begging assessment and a genuine and conscientious effort to improve these conditions. A collaboration between government, NGOs and stakeholders to create awareness on the effects of harmful environmental practices will to an extent, help to curb environmental disasters in the country. The lack of media attention in Nigeria on internal displacement also downplays the magnitude of the problem. Heightened attention will increase awareness on the plight of IDPs and will force government to take some action and hopefully, give due attention to them. It will also increase support from well-meaning individuals and organizations.
With the staggering numbers and obviously growing menace of internal displacement, it is disconcerting that this issue is trivialized. These numbers are real. The persons affected are Nigerians and so are the challenges. Only a dedicated fight will solve the problem.
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With donations from generous individuals and organizations, DHI has been organizing outreaches to internally displaced persons throughout the nation since 2008. We give foodstuff, essential materials and free health consultations/services during these outreaches. We are constantly in need of donations and volunteers. Would you please join us? Contact details: 0703 255 6691 or 0803 752 5616. For donations – Access Bank, account no. 006 549 6649, account name – Doctors Health Initiative. Visit us at www.dhicares.blog to learn more about what we do.
**Ogonna Kanu, a DHI volunteer, writes from Lagos, Nigeria