Nigerian refugees in Niger thrive in ‘villages of opportunity’

The West African country Niger hosts more than 303,000 refugees and asylum seekers, most fleeing violence in neighboring Nigeria.

In the southern region of Maradi, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the aid group Save the Children have set up camps to help refugees stay safe from the border while alleviating the burden of their host community.

In a dusty playground in Garin Kaka refugee camp in southern Niger, young children spin on a merry-go-round and climb on a metal playground.

The camp, in a patch of scrubland in southern Niger, is home to around 4,000 refugees who have fled violence by Islamist militants and bandits in neighboring Nigeria.

It is one of three camps the UN refugee agency has set up in Niger’s Maradi region since 2019 as what it calls a “village of opportunity”.

Refugees in these camps, the first of their kind in Niger, have been moved further away from the border for their safety, and both refugees and the local population are receiving assistance.

The idea of ​​providing relief to locals is to reduce their burden of the refugee population and ease 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.

Three years ago, Hanetou Ali, a 42-year-old Nigerian, fled her village on foot with her 11 children after Islamist militants attacked and began killing her neighbours.

She said that when the militants chased them, she and her family fled. But the militants grabbed a man and his wife, Ali said, and cut him to pieces. You could see the blood flowing, she said, and people had to pick up the pieces to bury her.

Safe in the camp since 2019, Ali used a grant to open a shop selling vegetables, salt and cooking oil.

The Save the Children aid group runs services in the camp.

Ilaria Manunza of the group said it was just as important to support the refugees as the locals, who are increasingly under pressure from climate change.

“We also believe that the host population still needs and needs some support, so we cannot forget the host population, the fact that they were extremely welcoming and supportive of the refugees,” Manunza said. “Therefore, all our interventions must always target both the refugee population and the host populations.”

Aid groups hope that the refugees in the so-called villages of opportunity will eventually become self-sufficient.

But some of the refugee women say they are unable to expand their businesses because there is not enough demand for their services in the camp.

Jameela Salifou, a 40-year-old Nigerian mother of six, also arrived at Garin Kaka camp three years ago after gunmen attacked her village.

She earns her living by mending clothes with a sewing machine.

Salifou said sometimes they make enough money to buy cassava flour, but it’s not every day that they have business. She said that’s how they survive; with the small amount (of money) they receive, they succeed because they are proud of their business. Salifou said that if she earned anything, she could use it not only to buy food but also to protect her family’s dignity.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says the conflict in northwestern Nigeria has forced more than 80,000 Nigerians to flee to Niger’s Maradi region. Nearly 18,000 refugees have been moved across the three camps with the Opportunity Village model.

Aid groups have said that if the model is successful in helping refugees integrate and start new lives, they could soon be settled in other countries in the region.

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