MONGUNO, Nigeria - Tens of thousands of Nigerians liberated from Boko Haram face a desperate lack of food that has left some children severely malnourished and families struggling to make ends meet, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency warned today.
Children are being sent on to the streets to beg for food and money, or on risky trips to surrounding fields to find firewood to sell. Many people still have nowhere safe to sleep, and some are camping in dilapidated schools.
Mothers whose husbands were kidnapped or who have disappeared have been left to care for as many as 10 children alone in places where they struggle to work or earn money, and many live with fear that insurgents could attack them again.
Nigerian military operations earlier in 2016 in the country's north-east pushed Boko Haram out of a sweep of some major towns, such as Monguno, 140 kilometres north of the Borno State capital, Maiduguri, and freeing tens of thousands of people from the insurgents' rule.
But conditions remain very difficult, UNHCR reported following a recent emergency assessment mission it led with a partner NGO.
"Boko Haram attacked my village six weeks ago, they stole all of our belongings and our food," said one mother, Falmata,* who is now living among the displaced in Monguno.
"Boko Haram attacked my village six weeks ago."
Her husband disappeared and she fled with their baby on her back and their five-year-old daughter by her side to a makeshift camp in Monguno called Kuya. Mamagona, her 16-month-old baby, is so malnourished she needed medical treatment at a nearby clinic.
"Most people from my village fled and are in this camp with me," said Falmata, 32. "Mamagona's health started to deteriorate when we were in the camp. There is not enough food here and I don't have enough millet to give to her, but I don't want to go back to my village, it is too dangerous with Boko Haram in the area."
Another mother, Jabba, 28, also said she could not find enough food for her family. "I am sending my children, including my youngest boy who is eight years old, to be in the streets" to beg for money to buy food, she said.
UNHCR teams noticed a lot of breastfeeding women in Kuya camp, including teenagers, as well many young girls with children. The launch of livelihood projects is urgently needed to help women become self-sufficient and lessen the risk of people turning to survival sex.
More than 60,000 displaced people are living in nine temporary encampments in Monguno, and more people arrive every week as military operations continue to dislodge Boko Haram further north.
The Nigerian authorities and some aid agencies have arranged limited food distributions, but it was now key that these were increased and made more regular.
UNHCR is working with the regional government to find a new site where displaced people can properly be cared for, and meanwhile plans to provide basic household items like kitchen utensils, mattresses, mosquito nets, jerry cans, female hygiene materials, soap and detergent.
"Few of these people are likely to return to their homes and villages soon."
Women whose husbands had been killed or kidnapped by Boko Haram remain traumatised, and they and their children need counselling and help to restart their lives, including to find ways to earn a living.
Few of these people are likely to return to their homes and villages soon because of continuing insecurity, disrupted economic activity, and the presence of land mines in their villages and fields. Security continues to restrict aid agencies' movements in parts of Borno, but UNHCR hopes to continue its vulnerability screening visits to sites in Banki, Dikwa and Gamboru-N'Gala in the next few weeks.
These visits allow us to assess needs and address gaps to better assist the internally displaced populations, especially in terms of security, shelter, psycho-social support, and livelihood activities, as well as to avoid duplicating tasks with other agencies.
More than two million people have been forcibly displaced in Nigeria, including 1.87 million who fled Boko Haram violence since 2014. Some 195,350 people have sought shelter in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
*full names withheld for protection reasons