Aidoghie Paulinus, Abuja
The outgoing United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative to Nigeria and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Antonio Jose Canhandula, has said that absence of communication is the root cause of the recent face-off between the military and some Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) operating in the Northeast of the country.
Attributing the development to suspicion, Canhandula also said that the security forces working in the Northeast wanted to make sure that what is happening in the humanitarian environment does not go against their own efforts as security.
Amongst other issues, Canhandula opened up on the situation of Cameroonian refugees in Nigeria and Nigerian refugees outside the country, saying that he is leaving the refugees better than he met them when he began his tour of duty in 2017. Excerpts:
Under what conditions are you leaving refugees in the country?
When we talk of refugees, we are mainly talking of Cameroonian refugees that started coming into Nigeria in 2017. When they started, they were actually dispersed along the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. And there were few incidents that told us that the best would be to remove them from the border if we were to have any programme. Of course, there are refugees that have never left the villages where they came into. We still go and monitor them, but we don’t have a programme in those areas. But we have designated areas that the governments, particularly of Benue and Cross River have given us. We call them settlements and I should say that essentially, we leave refugees at this point, they are no longer in the emergency situation in which they were in 2017 and most of 2018. Basically, at that point, they need shelter, they need food, they need health, they need education, et cetera. Today, I would say that the food situation has more or less stabilised. Food security is something that is more relevant to refugees in settlements. But even in those settlements, the government of Benue has provided us with an additional 100 hectares of land for them to be able to cultivate and have their own crops. The government of Cross River also gave us 100 hectares of land. So, I would say that in terms of food security, refugees might be this year in a much better position to depend less on humanitarian assistance.
How about Nigerian refugees?
Nigerian refugees, we are talking here of Nigerian refugees in neighbouring countries. In Niger, we have 112,000, plus another 36,000 that just went there in 2019. That is Northwest Nigeria, and you have 16,000 refugees in Chad and 92,000 Nigerian refugees in Cameroon.
How are they fairing?
I won’t say that the conditions are less difficult because even in those countries, Boko Haram also has penetration and security-wise, it has been a challenge to all governments, including Niger, Chad, etc, to ensure security. The difference between the Nigerian refugees outside and the Cameroonian refugees in Nigeria is that Nigeria has actually allowed refugees to mingle and to stay with the local population. Even when they are in settlements, these are open areas where there is interaction and, therefore, there is a commercial exchange and there are economic activities. The refugees on the other hand, the Nigerian refugees outside, because they are living in a security-constrained environment, they are actually confined to camps and that does not allow them to express themselves economically to have activities. So, they depend so much on humanitarian assistance. That is the major difference.
Efforts have been on to galvanise support for refugees both at the local and at the international level; how far has this gone?
At the regional level, the efforts have been summarised in what we call today the Global Compact on Refugees in trying to mobilise the entire community, not just the humanitarian community into supporting refugees. Looking at refugees really, not just as a burden for the government, but actually as a burden for society. And in this country, we have seen quite a lot of that expression. For instance, we have gotten support from the Jaiz Islamic Foundation, we got support from the Daystar Christian Centre, we have gotten support from private individuals. The entire community really is mobilised around the issue of refugees. The problem with refugees is that you don’t just need to provide them with life-saving. You need to solve the situation that created that refuge and, therefore, people should return back to their country.
How can the situation be solved?
When you look at the Cameroon situation and the history of the English Cameroon, you realised that it is a political solution that goes beyond the humanitarian capacity to solve it. However, we have also communicated to other political branches of the United Nations to please try to talk to the government in Cameroon to see to the inclusion of people who feel excluded from the national politics. Maybe that inclusion will then solve the problem of refugees. People need to return to their country.
How much has been expended so far on refugees during your stay in the country?
On refugees alone, in 2018 when we started with this programme, we spent only $5 million.
When exactly did you begin your tour of duty?
October, 2017. But at that time, we didn’t spend much. It was actually organizations such as Caritas, the government and other organizations that were providing food and shelter, etc. It took us time to mobilise in 2018.
How much did you spend in 2019?
In 2019, we managed to spend $20 million because then, the population of refugees had increased to 50,000 more or less.
How far did the amount go in ensuring the welfare of the refugees?
We did cover more or less 40 per cent of their housing and shelter needs. We did cover 50 per cent of their food needs, but we only covered maybe 20 per cent of their education needs because they came with a lot of students. Of the 50,000 refugees, a whole 12,000 are actually school-going people. And there, we were quite a little bit surprised and it took us some time to mobilise resources for education.
How is the security of the refugees? Is it something that is cheering?
When people flee across the country, their security is more or less okay because they are in another country where there is no war.
Non-governmental organizations in the Northeast have been a source of concern to the military and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Having worked in the Northeast, what do you think went wrong?
I think it is a question of communication and perception. Of course, when you talk of NGOs, it is very different from UN agencies. The UN agencies like ours, I am accredited to a government and, therefore, I only work with the government. But you have NGOs that feel like they need to work across lines and they want to work even in areas that are not controlled by the government. That is an interpretation of neutrality that the NGOs have that the UN doesn’t have.
Are there some of them who are under the financial support of the UN?
Yes. The UNHCR, for instance, has quite a number of NGOs. We work through NGOs in order to reach populations deep in the field.
In the midst of the concerns raised by the military and the EFCC, have you called the NGOs to order to check what is happening?
The UNHCR does not have that problem because we first of all prefer to work with national NGOs and the national NGOs have quite a different way of looking at the politics. What you need to understand is that when you work in an environment where there are military operations, naturally, security wants to make sure what is happening in the humanitarian environment does not go against their own efforts as security. That creates a certain suspicion and unless there is communication, that suspicion can actually lead to situations that are unwanted. But we have now, what they called the Civil-Military Coordination, which ensures that when you want to go to an area, you are not going to be confused with the military targets. So, there is a lot of that coordination that is happening. When it comes to the EFCC, it relates to a programme that is called Cash-Based Interventions, meaning that for some time now, particularly after the Istanbul Humanitarian Summit, we have come to the conclusion that some times, instead of buying items for populations, instead of buying their blankets or food, etc, it is actually best to give money to the people so that they can buy what they need most. Now, in that money transaction, that is when people start saying, where is this money going? Are you feeding genuine populations or you are taking money somewhere else? So, it is really suspicion. But, for instance, in the Cameroon refugees situation, we don’t have that problem because it is an area where there are no security operations, therefore, we have decided that in order to give refugees food, instead of buying the food for them, what you do is that you give them five to 10 dollars per month to each individual and in the family, they decide what type of food they buy. So, in that area, because there is no military operation, the cash works well. But when you have military operations, then suspicions that cash can be used for other things. That is when there is this confusion. But that is something we try to resolve through this Civil-Military Coordination.
But in moving cash around, does the amount you carry violate the known standard?
We are spending for the 50,000 Cameroonian refugees, the equivalence of $300,000 per month on food alone. But that is known by the local authorities that are sanctioned. It is really a question of dialogue.
As you leave the country, what are your recommendations to Nigeria and neighbouring countries in order to ensure better living conditions for refugees?
First of all is just to make sure that the creation of security conditions which they are already trying to do continue. You know of the joint efforts that they are into. But for people to return to their areas is not just security, it is actually also the restoration of basic services and talking about basic services, there are really not that many. Once you have security, you have education, you have health and you allow people to economically have activities, etc, these are the conditions that are enough for people to return. That will take some time because if you have been to places like Bama, Banki, Ngala, all of those, you will see that health services, education services have suffered most.