Several thousand refugees are living in resettlement camps in the border villages of southeastern Nigeria and most of them struggle to access food, healthcare services, shelter, education, water and sanitation facilities.
Helen Egbe has done all kinds of low-paid work to scrape by since she crossed the border to Agbokim Waterfalls village in southern Nigeria’s Cross River State.
Egbe, a single mother, fled the town of Mamfe in the Manyu division of the Southwest Region in Cameroon in November 2017, following a heavy crackdown by Cameroonian security forces on Anglophone separatists trying to break away from the Francophone-dominated government in Yaounde.
“I do not want to rely on anybody to feed my children and meet my needs so I hustle on my own and I make up to $3 to $5 per day,” says 37-year-old Egbe, who has worked in construction sites, a small chewing stick processing factory, and in cocoa and cassava farms to cater for her two children aged 11 and seven.
Fighting between security forces and armed groups has displaced some 437,000 people in Cameroon.
A divided country
A country created by the unification of former British and French administrative units in 1961, Cameroon has 10 semi-autonomous regions, of which eight are Francophone and the other two mainly English-speaking people in the Northwest and Southwest regions.
Twenty percent of Cameroon’s more than 24 million inhabitants are from the Anglophone regions, where people say they are marginalised and complain about a lack of equal representation in public offices, unemployment, poor infrastructure and a constant struggle to access basic services.
Some grumble that government documents are largely written in French, even though the central African country, which shares a border with Nigeria’s southeast, claims to be bilingual.
In October 2016, lawyers and teachers from the Anglophone regions organised a strike over the deployment of Francophone lawyers and teachers to their regions, demanding greater autonomy.
But nothing angered the government like the declaration of a new state known as Ambazonia on October 1 2017 by separatists. Government security forces descended on protesters with brutal force, arresting people, burning villages and killing people.
Armed groups such as the Ambanzonia Defence Forces, Tiger and Red Dragons, have since sprung up to fight back and gain independence for their people, worsening the crisis.
Struggle for survival
In Nigeria, Cameroonians seeking asylum have settled in Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Benue and Taraba states, but the majority are in Cross River State.
There, refugees are living in resettlement camps and mainly among host communities in border villages, including Agbokim Waterfalls village where Helen Egbe continues to live. Most of them struggle to access food, health care services, shelter, education, water and sanitation facilities.
Egbe now ventures deep into the surrounding forest to cut down branches of trees that she transports back to the village on dugout canoes. These branches are chopped into pencil-sized chewing twigs which are widely used for brushing teeth across Africa.
She is able to get at least six bags after the branches have been chopped into smaller pieces and makes up to $40 in profits. Her two children now attend a nearby school and she recently secured a single room for $36 a year.
“Sometimes I trek in the forest for 29 miles before I will find the right tree,” Egbe tells TRT World. She also collects bundles of eru or afang vine to sell to buyers in local markets. Eru vines are widely sought after here to make native delicacies, and she makes up to $27 after sales.
Around Agbokim Waterfalls village, the majority of the more than 1,200 refugees living here are engaged in making the teeth-cleaning sticks to earn $8 to $10 for a full bag, which can take up to a week to fill.
This is what 30-year-old Queen Etta does to feed her six children and husband. None of her kids are attending school yet despite moving to the village in October 2017.
“Sometimes I have to beg for food to survive, or I go to work in cassava farms in exchange for tubers of yam or any other food available,” Etta says, a toddler strapped to her back prattling.
She is paid $8 to fill a bag with chewing sticks, but complains that sometimes she is “owed and insulted and mostly paid in installments because I am a refugee”.
Most chewing stick buyers come from Cotonou, the commercial hub of Benin Republic, explains 38-year-old Ebam Ivo, who collects tree branches for making chewing twigs, too.
A full bag of the teeth-cleaning twigs costs $42.
“There is no help again from NGOs and the UNHCR,” Ivo says. “Our children are not going to school anymore because we cannot afford the fees.”
Another refugee, Victor Eban, says he has taken to clearing farmlands for planting and weeding before the harvest to survive.
A father of two, 35-year-old Eban gets paid $3 per day to work from 6am to 2pm, but that “doesn’t come every day and things really getting worse for us”, he laments.
Limited support in Nigeria
Since October 2017, when Cameroonian refugees crossed into Nigeria, UNHCR has been working with local partners like Nigeria’s National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons, to register refugees and distribute relief items including cooking oil, mattresses, rice, pots, buckets and jerry cans. It also caters to refugees’ health care, water and sanitation needs.
From August last year, UNHCR began to move refugees to settlements where they should receive better care.
As of the end of March, 11,545 Cameroonian refugees have been voluntarily relocated to settlements in Anyake, in central Nigeria’s Benue State, and in Adagom and Okende in Cross River State. Some 1,059 permanent shelters have been completed in these settlements.
At the settlement in Okende, temporary shelters built with mud bricks and covered with corrugated iron sheets dot the landscape, and so do water points, latrine blocks and bathing units. Children have also been enrolled in nearby schools.
But even here, their living conditions leave much to be desired.
A joint UNHCR and WFP Emergency Food Security Assessment conducted last October found that more than 80 percent of refugee households in settlements and those in host communities are “severely or moderately food insecure”.
As a result, about 82 percent of refugees may be adopting risky coping measures such as survival sex or child labour, UNHCR says.
“Water is a big problem,” a refugee in Okende settlement, who doesn’t want to be named, tells TRT World.
“Sometimes they supply doesn’t reach everybody. When you visit some households people are sleeping on the bare floor – no mats, no mattresses, no mosquito nets, or stoves, that is why most of us are cooking in the open on stones.”
To help refugees in settlements meet their daily needs, UNHCR offers a monthly cash-for-food assistance of $20 per refugee. As of March, the organisation says some 13,371 refugees have received this assistance. However, even that is not enough.
At 18, Augustine Tambe is supposed to be in school, but he is worried that he might not be able to meet his needs if he relies entirely on the $20 monthly assistance. Now, he sometimes skips classes to work in farms for $3 per day.
And not every refugee in the Okende settlement has a permanent shelter.
Around three halls made from UNHCR-emblazoned tarpaulins sit in the centre of the settlement.
These halls are overpopulated with new arrivals and other refugees who are yet to be offered permanent shelters. Some refugees say they have stayed there for three to six months, with limited access to food, sanitation and healthcare services.
The situation is even more dire for refugees like Helen Egbe, who are living in host communities, away from the support that people in settlements receive.
Around 61 percent of Cameroonian refugees live in host communities in about 50 villages along the border.
In Agbokim waterfalls, Egbe say they have not received any support from UNHCR or its partners since August last year. “All we got this year is the borehole drilled by MSF [Medecins Sans Frontieres] and the free primary healthcare consultations services they offer to us and the host community.”
What happens next?
The conflict in Cameroon shows no signs of abating, as heavy fighting continues between armed rebels and security forces, including soldiers, members of the Rapid Intervention Battalion and gendarmes.
Both sides have been accused of gross human rights violations.
Last month, a report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused government forces of killing at least 170 civilians and torching hundreds of homes in the Anglophone regions since October last year. The report added that separatists have kidnapped at least 350 people for ransom within the same period.
“The government’s heavy-handed response targeting civilians is counterproductive and risks igniting more violence,” says HRW’s Central Africa director Lewis Mudge.
Cameroon President Paul Biya, who came into office in 1982, seems unwilling to leave office. He won a seventh term in elections marred by intimidation and low voter turnout last October.
As the conflict rages on, UNHCR, which registered nearly 2,000 new arrivals from Anglophone regions in March, expects the number of refugees in Nigeria to rise to 50,000 by the end of the year.
“The humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate,” says UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch.
“Underfunding and insecurity have restricted protection and assistance activities to affected populations.”
The UN refugee agency is hoping to raise $184 million to fund its operations in Cameroon and Nigeria – including US$35.4 million “needed urgently for critical life-saving assistance”, Baloch added.
For now, Egbe is solely focused on raising more money to continue paying her kids’ schools, her rent and then medical bills for her back pain, a result of all the hard labour she is engaged in.
“I have never hustled like this before but our condition here is very bad and you have to find ways to survive,” she says.
“My husband is dead, and the UNHCR is not coming to Agbokim Waterfalls again. People are suffering, but I know one day we everything will be fine again.”