Nigerian refugees in Niger thrive in ‘opportunity villages’

The West African country of Niger is home to more than 303,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, most of whom are fleeing violence in neighboring Nigeria.

In the southern Maradi region, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the charity Save the Children have set up camps to help refugees stay safe from the border while relieving pressure on their host community.

In a dusty playground in the Garin Kaka refugee camp in southern Niger, young children spin on a carousel and climb a metal jungle gym.

The camp, located in a patch of bushland in southern Niger, is home to around 4,000 refugees who fled violence from Islamist militants and bandits in neighboring Nigeria.

It is one of three camps that the United Nations refugee agency has set up in the Maradi region of Niger since 2019 as a so-called “Opportunity Village”.

Refugees in these camps, the first of their kind in Niger, have been moved further from the border for their safety, and both the refugees and the local population are receiving assistance.

The idea of ​​providing aid to the local people is to reduce their exposure to the refugee population and relieve tensions that might otherwise arise from competition for resources.

Refugee women also receive small grants to set up shops so they can look after their families.

42-year-old Nigerian Hanetou Ali fled her village on foot with her 11 children three years ago after Islamist militants attacked their neighbors and began killing them.

She said when militants pursued her, she and her family fled. But militants captured a man and his wife, Ali said, and cut them to pieces. The blood was seen flowing, she said, and people had to collect the pieces to bury him.

Safe in camp since 2019, Ali used a grant to set up a shop selling vegetables, salt and cooking oil.

Aid group Save the Children runs services at the camp.

The group’s Ilaria Manunza said it was just as important to support refugees as locals, who are increasingly under pressure from climate change.

“We also believe that the host community still needs and needs some support, so we cannot forget the host community, the fact that they have been very welcoming and supportive of the refugees,” Manunza said. “Therefore, all our interventions should always target both the refugee population and the host population.”

Aid organizations hope that refugees in the so-called Opportunity Villages will finally become self-sufficient.

But some of the refugee women say they cannot expand their business because there is not enough demand for their services in the camp.

Forty-year-old Nigerian mother-of-six Jameela Salifou was also detained in Garin Kaka camp three years ago after gunmen attacked her village.

She earns her living mending clothes with a sewing machine.

Salifou said sometimes they make enough money to buy cassava flour, but it’s not every day they do business. She said that’s how they survive; With the small amount of money they get, they make it because they take pride in their business. Salifou said if she earns something, not only can she use it to buy groceries, but also to protect her family’s dignity.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the conflict in north-west Nigeria has forced more than 80,000 Nigerians to flee to Niger’s Maradi region. Almost 18,000 refugees were brought to the three camps using the Opportunity Village model.

Aid groups said if the model is successful in helping refugees integrate and start new lives, they could soon be set up in other countries in the region.

About Ellen Lewandowski

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