The West African country of Niger hosts more than 303,000 refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom are fleeing violence from neighboring Nigeria.
In the southern part of the Maradi region, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Save the Children relief group have set up camps to help refugees stay safe at the border, as well as alleviate the burden on their host community.
In a dusty playground at the Garin Kaka refugee camp in southern Niger, small children spin on merry-go-rounds and climb a metal climbing frame.
The camp, located in a patch of bush in southern Niger, is home to about 4,000 refugees fleeing violence from Islamist militants and bandits in neighboring Nigeria.
It is one of three camps set up by the UN Refugee Agency in Nigeria’s Maradi region since 2019 as a so-called “opportunity village”.
The 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 behind helping local residents is to reduce their burden from refugees and ease any tensions that might otherwise arise from competition for resources.
Refugee women also receive small grants to open shops so they can take care of their families.
42-year-old Nigerian Hanetu Ali fled her village on foot three years ago with her 11 children after Islamist militants attacked and killed her neighbors.
When the militants chased them, she and her family ran, she said. But the gunmen caught the man and his wife, Ali said, and tore him to pieces. According to her, you could see how the blood was flowing, and people had to collect the pieces to bury him.
While at the camp since 2019, Ali used the grant to open a shop selling vegetables, salt and cooking oil.
Help group Save the Children holds services at the camp.
Ilaria Manunza from the group said that supporting the refugees is just as important as supporting the locals, who are under increasing pressure due to climate change.
“We also believe that the host population still needs and needs some support, so we cannot forget about the host population, the fact that they were very welcoming and supportive of the refugees,” Manunza said. “Therefore, all our interventions must always be aimed at both the refugees and the host population.”
Aid groups hope that refugees in so-called villages of opportunity will eventually become self-sufficient.
But some refugees say they can’t develop their businesses because there isn’t enough demand for their services in the camp.
Jamila Salifou, a 40-year-old Nigerian mother of six, also arrived at the Garin Kaka camp three years ago after gunmen attacked her village.
She makes a living by mending clothes on a sewing machine.
Salifu said that sometimes they make enough money to buy cassava flour, but it’s not every day that they have a business. She said that’s how they survive; with the small amount (money) they receive, they manage because they are proud of their business. Salifu said that if she earns something, she can use the money not only to buy food, but also to protect the dignity of her family.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said the conflict in northwestern Nigeria has forced more than 80,000 Nigerians to flee to Nigeria’s Maradi region. Approximately 18,000 refugees have been moved to three camps under the Opportunity Village model.
Aid groups said that if the model helps refugees integrate and start a news life, they could soon be established in other countries in the region.
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