DAKAR (AlertNet) – Fighting in Mali between the army and rebels, the Nigerian military’s attempts to crack down on a sect that has perpetrated violence in the country’s north, and a rebellion that toppled Muammar Gaddafi’s 40-year reign in Libya.
What have these security issues got to do with food insecurity in neighbouring country Niger?
Aid groups say the fallout from instability in these countries has compounded Niger’s food insecurity and fuelled unemployment and poverty in a country where the U.N. estimates 6.1 million people are at risk of starvation.
Travelling to Nigeria to seek jobs and send remittances was a major coping mechanism for Nigeriens in times of drought and food shortages.
But Niger’s government said late last week at least 10,000 Nigeriens have returned home from neighbouring Nigeria in the past six months to escape the escalation of violence there.
Islamic sect Boko Haram, which wants Islamic sharia applied across Nigeria, has claimed responsibility for a series of bombings and other attacks that have killed scores of people in recent weeks. The Nigerian authorities sealed borders with some neighbouring countries, which they fear the group could use as bases.
“In nearly every village near the border of Nigeria we’re hearing from families who would usually send their men to Kano (in northern Nigeria) to find work and send back money for food. This year they are unable to go,” says Lauren Fisher, a spokeswoman for the U.S.-based charity World Vision.
“That critical coping mechanism isn’t there for people right now, just at the time when they need it the most.”
In addition, the return of some 90,000 mostly young, uneducated male migrants from Libya has had an overall negative impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living in regions affected by chronic food insecurity and underemployment, according to a survey by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The survey released last year notes that 86 percent of the returnees said that when in Libya they had remitted enough money to support five family members in Niger.
“Their return effectively means that remittances have now dried up, with often dire consequences for vulnerable families living in drought and food-insecurity-prone areas,” IOM said in statement.
One such area is Niger’s north-western region of Tillabéri, which today is among the places hosting those who have fled conflict between Tuareg-led rebels and the army in northern Mali.
Over 70,000 Malians have fled to neighbouring countries. According to recent Nigerien government figures, nearly 25,000 Malians have fled to Niger, while the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR has put the number at 16,000.
The locals, already hit by the food crisis, are further burdened by sharing the little food they have with the unexpected refugees, aid groups have said
“Right now, many villagers are unable to afford even one meal a day for their families,” said Esperance Klugan, the head of World Vision in Niger.
U.N. agencies and non-governmental organisations have praised the Nigerien authorities for how they have handled the food crisis – for mobilising food and money and rapidly appealing for the international community to fill in the gaps. The authorities have distributed food rations to the refugees and attempted a few initiatives to aid the returnees from Libya.
But Niger is a poor country. Aid groups say it will not cope with such a humanitarian burden for too long without quick help.
“We need to take action now to make sure the situation doesn’t escalate to devastate even more families in Niger,” Klugan said.