Cameroon: Tens of Thousands Flee Boko Haram Violence

Tristan Pfund

Tens of thousands of people in northern Cameroon are in need of humanitarian aid after fleeing attacks by Boko Haram in neighboring Nigeria. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams are scaling up their assistance to these refugees and to local communities.

Between 100 and 200 refugees from Nigeria arrive each day in Minawao camp in northern Cameroon, which is already sheltering some 45,000 Nigerians, according to official figures. Some 90,000 Cameroonians from the area bordering Nigeria have also been forced to flee their homes, as incursions and violent attacks by Boko Haram continue unabated.

“Boko Haram burned our house and took all our cows and belongings,” says Samuel, 45, from Nigeria. “They kidnapped my wife and two of my children and held them in one of their jails. My wife managed to escape and is trying to join me in Minawao, but I don’t have any news of my children. I don’t even know if they are still alive.”

Dire Living Conditions

Weeks or months after being forced to flee, many of the refugees and displaced people are extremely vulnerable, with insufficient food, shelter, and access to medical care.

The poor living conditions pose additional health risks in a region often stricken by food insecurity, and where access to medical care is limited. As the rainy season sets in, MSF teams are seeing increasing numbers of patients with malaria. With people unable to plant or harvest crops after fleeing their homes, there has been a significant rise in admissions to MSF’s nutrition programs in recent months as well. The number of children treated at MSF’s intensive therapeutic feeding center in Mokolo has more than tripled since May. 

“The rise in admissions is a first warning sign,” says MSF head of mission Hassan Maiyaki. “To respond to the increasing needs, we are reinforcing our capacity to treat malnourished children at the hospital in Mokolo, and we are also starting to offer intensive nutritional care at the hospital in Kousseri.”

Fighting Disease and Providing Safe Water

Cholera is endemic in Cameroon, with outbreaks occurring almost every year, but the refugees are particularly at risk due to overcrowding and limited access to clean water in Minawao camp. On August 18, MSF teams began a month-long mass vaccination campaign to protect some 58,000 Nigerian refugees and Cameroonians living in and around Minawao against the waterborne disease, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health. The 28 eight-person teams will also vaccinate some 14,600 women of childbearing age against tetanus and will screen all children under the age of five for acute malnutrition.

Minawao camp is situated in a desert-like region where water is scarce. MSF currently provides more than half of the camp’s overall water supply by trucking water from the town of Mokolo, some 40 kilometers  [about 25 miles] away. Refugees in the camp currently receive an average of 16 liters [about four gallons] per person per day, but the constant arrival of refugees from Nigeria means that increasing quantities of water are needed.

MSF started working in Cameroon in 1984. In the north of the country, MSF teams currently provide basic health care, malnutrition treatment, and mental health services in Minawao camp; pediatric care and intensive therapeutic feeding at Mokolo district hospital; and surgical support and nutritional and pediatric care at the regional hospital in Kousseri. MSF also provided support to local health authorities to treat the wounded following two suicide bombings in Maroua in July 2015. In Batouri, eastern Cameroon, MSF provides malnutrition treatment for refugees from Central African Republic and the local population. MSF currently has 574 staff in Cameroon, both international and Cameroonian.

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A hospitalized malnourished child is being feed up by a nurse in the ITFC MSF set up next to the Mokolo Hospital.
Tristan Pfund