‘Forgotten’ Lake Chad Basin crisis affects two million children

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Alhaji, a Nigerian teenager who barely escaped the violence, in the Lake Chad basin. [World Vision]

The EU and its member states, as well as other donors, need to address the current funding shortfall for the “forgotten” crisis of the Lake Chad Basin, writes Kathryn Taetzsch.

Dr. Kathryn Taetzsch is the director of Humanitarian Response & Private Sector Partnerships at World Vision International

Alhajj is one of more than 2 million children affected by the ongoing displacement crisis around the Lake Chad Basin. One day two years ago, Alhajj had just returned home from school in his village in northern Nigeria and went to the river to bath and wash. He suddenly heard sounds of guns and bombs. He was scared and started swimming across the river. He wasn’t with any of his family members, but other children. When he reached Niger, someone gave him some food and offered him a place to sleep.

Thankfully, after three days, he found his mum and some siblings. Weeks later, he was reunited with his brother, who escaped from northern Nigeria with the help of an old man, who disguised him as a girl in a dress and smuggled him out of Damasak to Niger. Alhaji, then 13 (and now 15) years old, is now selling credits for mobile phone airtime, as there is no school option for him in the camp. When asked what he’d wish for – he clearly says he’d like to return home once it is peaceful. Until then, he wants to make a living for his displaced family in order to survive in the desert, to get clothes and food.

Zena, a girl in exile, has grown from childhood into adolescence since the ravaging violence in Northern Nigeria abruptly ended her peaceful childhood at home.  She was able to contribute through her volunteer work to help her community’s kids enjoy some hours of normalcy per day, in the middle of sand, 45-degree heat and dusty dry hot wind, in the Niger desert with barely a few small trees or shrubs to provide shade in Sayam Forage Refugee Camp. Thousands of temporary shelter of plastic sheets provided by UNHCR glaze in the hot sun in long and symmetric rows connected with sticks, some sorghum/bamboo woven walls to fix the plastic sheeting and make two “rooms”. This has been home for her and her family for the past two years.

These children had to run away quickly when the attacks were launched on their town in northern Nigeria. These children saw how parents, friends, neighbours were killed or broke down during the trek several hundred kilometres across to the border with Niger. Now, they can play in the child-friendly space. It is amazing to witness over and again how much so “little” basic investment providing slides, swings, soccer balls, basic toys and painting and writing stationary can make such an enormous difference. Playful and joyful children everywhere and beaming monitors/facilitators that have put incredible effort into building and improving the space, so that kids in their community have room to enjoy, and forget about the experiences that have driven them away from their once safe and familiar homes.

Daily news about new attacks, and insecurity in locations close to their area in northern Nigeria, create a “no-return-demarcation line” for them for now. Many even indicate, if there is no choice, they’d rather stay in this camp, in the desert, where they feel safe. This Nigerian community is active. When they can – grown-ups and kids track to a nearby local market to trade and sell the little they have – whether it is self-made grass ropes or obtaining their local spices that they seem to miss dearly in the food rations they receive in the camp.

Providing internet access, providing opportunities to save some small cash, investing into small businesses, like selling flip flops and coffee sachets, sweets, maybe continuing part of their study through online options, to teaching their younger siblings how to use a computer and learn French, would be one-day at a time, but one day not wasted.

The humanitarian branch of the European Commission, DG ECHO, managed to put the issues affecting children in the region at the forefront of its first Education in Emergency Forum in November. However, as Alhajj and Zena’s stories remind us, much more needs to be done. They live in a place where vulnerability truly meets fragility.

The EU and its member states, as well as other donors, need to address the current funding shortfall, particularly in crucial sectors such as water and sanitation, nutrition, protection and child protection. Flexible funding for humanitarian response and longer-term, predictable funding that covers the needs of host communities and displaced people is desperately needed. Moving towards that direction would strengthen the ability of children like Alhajj and Zena and their families to positively react to and cope with future shocks in the midst of a crisis that is already forgotten.

The EU and the rest of the world cannot wait until some desperation sets in, and youngsters try to cross the deserts, to cross the Mediterranean or conscript to militant groups and activities.

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