As Libya’s civil war goes on, West African refugees are fleeing the country. Some have left by boat, sometimes with tragic results. Some have reached Europe. Tens of thousands, meanwhile, have crossed south in Niger. Many of these are nationals of Niger, so their trip is a homecoming of sorts. Estimates of the human stream into Niger vary, but several tallies place the number at around 60,000 persons who have traveled from Libya to Niger since February. AFP puts the number of refugees who have entered Niger from the Libya and Cote d’Ivoire crises combined at 93,000. Another source puts the estimate differently: 1,000 people are coming into Niger every day, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Some sources say the arrivals are now decreasing somewhat, but that the demographic profile of the refugees is changing: men are now bringing their wives and children with them, indicating a more permanent return.
Whatever the number of refugees is, it’s large, and it’s placing major strains on Niger’s goverment and on the refugees themselves.
The newly elected civilian regime of President Mahamadou Issoufou took office in early April, and they entered power with a full plate. Needed aid has arrived for some communities in the southern part of Niger, but in the north, where refugees are concentrated, the government is struggling to deal with the influx. The arrivals also compound Niger’s recurring struggles with food insecurity, making life harder for the country’s permanent residents as well.
In late April, the Nigerien cabinet called for international aid to help them deal with the crisis. Last week, top Nigerien leaders reiterated the call:
“I appeal to all your countries and organisations to help us cope with this situation,” Niger Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum said to foreign diplomats and UN representatives in comments broadcast on state television.
He said that of 1.7 million euros ($2.4 million) requested, only 496,000 euros had been received and the country “may face a famine” if a remedy is not found.
Food insecurity is already growing in Zinder and Diffa in the east and Tahoua in the west, ahead of the new crop year beginning in June.
These three areas are home to most of an estimated three million people left under-nourished since drought last year led to food shortages, according to the agriculture ministry.
Appeals for aid by the national government are echoed by officials at the local level:
Adamou Habi, a member of a refugee management committee representing the governor of Agadez, told IRIN: “These are very, very difficult times. We are overwhelmed by the influx of people. We are doing our best with the help of a few individuals who have helped people return to their homes, but I don’t think we can hold up for much longer.”
“We really need aid,” he added.
The refugees themselves are experiencing severe hardships. The journey is difficult, the arrival no less so. In addition to food shortages, the economy has been affected in other ways, as refugees have lost their incomes and their families in Niger have lost needed remittances. The economic woes of refugees are causing crime:
Migrants who have fled the conflict in Libya to return to Niger say they are having to beg, steal, or sell off remaining animals or plots of land to survive, so as not to burden their already impoverished families, most of whom are struggling with food insecurity.
These hardships help explain why some refugees still inside Libya do not want to go home, even though their conditions in places like Misrata and Benghazi have been bad.
The desperation of the situation in Niger is a reminder of how much, and for how long, Libya’s civil war will affect the Sahel, and Africa as a whole. Even if the war ended tomorrow, countries like Niger would still need months, if not years, to rebuild and to deal with thousands of displaced persons. I hope the international community will heed Niger’s call for aid and devote substantial resources to helping with refugee resettlement, because the situation in Niger represents a humanitarian and a political risk of large proportions.
A final note on numbers: the BBC writes, “The UN believes at least 335,000 people have fled Libya since the beginning of the conflict, including at least 200,000 foreign nationals.” If 60,000 nationals of Niger have fled Libya during this time, that makes them almost 18% of the total refugees.