COVID-19: The Looming Disaster in IDP Camps 

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By Abubakar Usman

Unless something urgent and drastic happens in the manner the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons (NCRMI) manages the affairs of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs); unless it wakes up to its responsibilities and shows reasonable measure of preparedness, leadership, and articulated purpose, then Nigeria might as well be heading to a big disaster in volume of the 1945 Hiroshima atomic bomb as the nation grapples with Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

This is the only honest conclusion any unbiased and patriotic mind would reach after listening to the recent interview granted the African Independent Television (AIT) by Dr. Alex Manasseh, Executive Director of Impact Trust International, a member of the humanitarian action working groups based in the North East. Lamenting the palpable absence of awareness and the essentials like food, water, and medical support in the camps, nationwide, Dr. Manasseh confessed that he had “not seen any coordination as far as that Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants, and IDPs (NCFRMI) are concerned because in most of the camps, absolutely nothing has happened as far as the prevention of COVID-19 is concerned”.

His exact words: “Honestly, it has been a hard time, especially for the people that are in the IDP camps across the North East where we have the largest number of populations of people that have been displaced by the Boko Haram terrorism and insurgency. They really have a lot of challenges, especially with this pandemic.

“Right now the Borno State Government is trying to restrict access to the camps, which is the best way to go. But the major challenge is the availability of awareness and the essentials like food, water and medical support, and so on.

“The Borno State Government is (also) doing well, but at the national level, there are no coordinated efforts to check the pandemic in the camps, non at all. Some camps that have not received any food supply for some weeks now, also some for months. They will have to go out in search of food and that will expose them to the pandemic.

“Don’t forget that we have people that their immune systems have already been compromised by hunger and a lot of them have been predisposed to environmental hazards, while children are coming down with a lot of sickness. Recently, we had an outbreak of dysentery in some of the camps. And that needs to be taken seriously by the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs through the Refugees Commission.

“Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and the National Refugees Commission are supposed to be at the lead of addressing the humanitarian and Coronavirus challenges in the camps and getting international help. That is their call by our laws. But right now, what is obtainable on ground is that we are not seeing much of their efforts, even in the management of this pandemic.

“These people are mostly peasants. They are not educated. And they need information and care. We have lots of women and children in these camps. They need serious information and that is what is seriously lacking. Apart from the things seen on social media, nothing is happening on the side of government.

“It could have been better if mobilisation and coordination started much earlier, but it is important they come in right now, not only to promote hygiene and provide food, but also to create information and awareness so that the IDPs and host communities now know that everybody has a role to play in preventing this pandemic from gaining access into the IDP camps and host communities.

“If not for the what the international NGOs are doing, supported by the local NGOs, things could have been far worse.  We have been doing the assessment and evaluation and making the reports available to the Ministry and the Refugees Commission, but their response and visibility is nothing to write home about. All these authorities needed to do was to be proactive even before we got to these acute shortages and now faced by the pandemic.

“In fact, many of the host communities are even having more IDPs than the officially administered IDP camps. The Commission needs to come in immediately with serious campaign and the information must be consistent, frequent because any outbreak will be very disastrous”.

This lethargic, laissez-faire, rudderless, and insensitive approach by the leadership of the Commission, even in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, is may not be shocking, but it is certainly saddening. To relate with the fears of the humanitarian workers over, one only needs to consider that the IDPs live in closed communities, with little access to hygiene, and coupled with poor nutrition and presence of underlying illnesses that have already compromised their immunity.

It was no doubt in recognition of the enormity, urgency and peculiarity of the challenges faced by these displaced people that the President Muhammadu Buhari administration created the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management, and Social Development to serve as a layer of coordination of support as well as supervision/oversight of agencies like the Refugee Commission charged with the responsibility of catering to the needs of the IDPs. What remains to be seen is the quality of the oversight the Ministry exerts on the Commission.

The easiest excuse is paucity of funds. But everything is not about funds. Besides, a serious Commission and supervising Ministry would easily reach out to the international community for help. Instructively, even the United Nations and some other Western nations have ample aids targeted specifically at the IDPs in the developing world and some particularly at Nigeria in this time of coronavirus pandemic. But you do not expect them to come begging you to come access the funds. You have to also show purpose and capacity for leadership in the way you have grappled with the challenges within your own means.

It is equally instructive that it took the activist cum humanitarian worker’s outcry on national television for the Honourable Federal Commissioner and head of the Refugees Commission, Sen. Basheer Lado Mohammed that the Commission in its  “efforts to compliment the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs’ response efforts during the pandemic this COVID-19 pandemic…will be supporting with immediate distribution of food and non-food items to the affected areas, especially those where we have IDPs and Refugees”. Kneejerk.

Obviously, the Commission has no well-articulated and clear action plan on how to prevent outbreak of the dreaded virus in the IDP camps. There has not even been a single statement on enforcement of National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) protocol or guides on the novel Coronavirus to ensure the safety of IDPs. There is no enlightenment campaign so far. No nationally coordinated restriction of access to IDP camps.

It, therefore, safe to conclude that the National Refugees Commission is simply missing in action at a very critical time and must wake up or be roused by the appropriate authorities, for no nation can hope to sleepwalk through a full-blown emergency as we have on our hands.

Usman writes from Yola


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