More than 15,000 Cameroonians fled to Nigeria amid a crackdown on Anglophone separatists, the United Nations refugee agency and Nigerian government officials said.
The once-fringe English-speaking movement in majority French-speaking Cameroon has gathered pace in the last few months after a military crackdown on protests, leading it to declare independence in October for a breakaway “Ambazonia” state it wants to create.
The move poses the biggest challenge yet to the 35-year rule of President Paul Biya, who will seek re-election this year and the violent repression he unleashed has driven thousands from English-speaking regions into Nigeria.
More than 8,000 refugees registered in the south-eastern state of Cross River alone, said Antonio Jose Canhandula, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) representative in Nigeria, in Abuja.
A further 6,700 or so Cameroonian refugees crossed into neighbouring Benue state, said Sadiya Umar Farouq, the head of Nigeria’s National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons, citing Benue officials.
There are also at least 350 refugees in the states of Taraba and Akwa Ibom, said Tamuno Dienye Jaja, deputy comptroller general of the Nigeria Immigration Service.
The refugees are mostly children, women and the elderly, with few young men, the officials said.
“Certainly there are more, how many more we are not able to state,” said the UNHCR’s Canhandula.
“They are still coming and they are coming daily,” he said. “It is a crisis.”
More food assistance, education and social services are needed, particularly as a number of the women are pregnant at a young age, are all issues, Canhandula said.
Nigeria’s Farouq pledged government support.
“We are going to do all we can to bring some kind of relief,” she said.
Nigerian and Cameroonian officials met to discuss the refugees and talks are ongoing, she said, declining to give details.
The separatist movement, including armed radical elements, strained bilateral relations between the countries.
Last week, Nigerian authorities took 12 separatist leaders, including the chairman of the self-declared Governing Council of Ambazonia, into custody after they met in a hotel in Abuja, people familiar with the matter said.
Cameroonian troops last month crossed into Nigeria in pursuit of rebels without seeking Nigerian authorisation, leading to diplomatic wrangling behind the scenes.
The unrest in Cameroon began in November, when English-speaking teachers and lawyers in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon neighbouring Nigeria, frustrated with having to work in French, took to the streets calling for reforms and greater autonomy. French is the official language for most of Cameroon, but English is spoken in the two regions.