Nigeria: impossible choices for families forced from their homes

Sadiya* is 15 years old. She and her family fled her village in Northeast Nigeria when insurgents threatened to burn it down.
Sadiya* is 15 years old. She and her family fled her village in Northeast Nigeria when insurgents threatened to burn it down.

There are now more refugees in the world than at any time since second world war. Persecution, conflict, climate change, competition for resources and crippling poverty are forcing millions to leave their homes and their countries.

In north east Nigeria alone there are 1.5 million internally displaced people who have been forced from their homes by ruthless violence. They are refugees within their own country and, as some of them told me recently, they face impossible choices every day.

To leave or not to leave?

This is the first decision, in a long list of impossible choices that individuals must make on the road to becoming a member of this transient part of society. How long they will stay in this state of limbo? When will they find somewhere they can call home?

Statistics show that once a person is refugee for more than five years, they are likely to remain so for more than 25. Once they have decided to leave, many face a long road ahead.

Who stays, who goes?

Most of the families I spoke to were forced to split up from loved ones at some point in their journey to safety. Most have had to move a number of times.

Jummai* had to leave her parents behind when her village was attacked and burnt down. She hasn’t heard from them in months. She does not know where they are.

90% of the 1.5 million people displaced within the region live within host communities, as guests in other people’s homes. They have made the next choice in their grim list of calculations for survival – stay on the streets, or accept the kindness of extended family, friends or strangers?

Pity or pride?

“Do you pity me?” Jummai* asked me as we sat talking near the home she now shares with her husband’s friends and family. “People pity us. That’s how we survive now.”

I suddenly understood what those choices have meant to her – the shame in not being able to provide for yourself, and the frustration of relying on others to clothe and feed your family, who you have worked hard to raise. It felt awful.

Look to the future or adapt to your present?

It’s not easy living in someone else’s home, to be a permanent guest. You must adapt to new routines, and new ways of life. You must try to fit in.

Sadiya* is 15, and she used to love going to school. But since fighting forced her and her family to flee to a neighbouring state, she no longer attends.

“When I was home I would go to school, here I don’t,” she says. “I don’t anymore as none of my friends do. None of the girls.”

Freedom or safety?

“I am not free here” Musa* told me. He came to live with his brother after their father was killed in the fighting. His father had returned to their village to tend to the cattle when he was caught up in the chaos.

Now, Musa has no income. He is reliant on his hosts and worries about where he will find his next meal from.

“All the time I think about my dad and my home,” he says. He tells me that, when the security situation is calmer, he hopes to return home to tend the land his father once had.

To go back or to starve?

The conflict has meant that families have missed several harvests which millions rely on to feed their families and generate an income.

Up to 3 million people will not be able to meet their basic food needs during the summer months ahead.

With very few organisations operating in the dangerous setting, families are now weighing up whether the risk of death from hunger is now greater than that of the violence from which they previously escaped.

A forgotten crisis

9 million people have been affected by violence in the north east of Nigeria. That’s three times the population of Wales, and three times the amount of people needing assistance following the Nepal earthquake.

And yet we hear very little about this crisis and these unbearable decisions people must make.

Save the Children is one of a handful of organisations working in the region. Next week our dedicated team will be distributing food vouchers to support families living away from home, but the needs are vast and growing.

Less than half the funding needed to hold back the increasing food insecurity has been pledged. With very little public attention focussed on the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in north east Nigeria, millions will go hungry.

Millions will continue to make tough decisions, weigh up the odds and make desperate choices for survival.

* Names changed to protect identity

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