Some 20,000 Nigerians have fled to Chad, Niger Republic and Cameroon in the past two weeks after their towns and villages were attacked by Islamist sect Boko Haram, according to the United Nations and Federal Government figures.
The influx of refugees has put further strain on some of the poorest nations in Africa, which are already struggling to feed and protect their own people in a region that is recovering from drought. Human rights group Amnesty International said Boko Haram may have killed some 2,000 people around 3 January in Baga, Borno State, Nigeria.
The Sunni Muslim sect, which is trying to carve out an Islamic state in the largely Muslim north of Nigeria, has killed thousands in a five-year rebellion which is considered as the biggest security threat to Africa's top oil producer and is a headache for President Goodluck Jonathan ahead of the 14 presidential election.
In the past ten days, the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR estimated at 6,000 the number of Nigerian refugees, who have fled into Cameroon and a further 1,500 have gone north to seek shelter in Niger.
13,000 people have entered western Lake Chad region. Some have drowned in their attempt to flee, others have been left stranded on lake islands awaiting rescue boats. "We are preparing for things getting much worse, not better," said Karl Steinacker, UNHCR country representative in Niger, where around 150,000 people have taken shelter since the insurgency in Nigeria began five years ago.
Steinacker told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that lack of jobs, high food prices and the sudden increase in population in Niger's eastern Diffa area, the part most affected by the refugee influx, were putting pressure on scarce resources.
"In Diffa, people can no longer cross into Nigeria for work as it's too dangerous. But farmers in Niger are exporting to Nigeria where prices are higher due to the violence, so locals can't afford to eat," Steinacker said from Niamey.
Niger said it had launched an emergency operation on Monday to help the refugees seeking shelter in Diffa, a sparsely populated desert area. "Today we are launching this emergency plan totalling 20 billion francs ($36 million) to help the refugees," said Interior and Public Security Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou.
A first shipment of 800 tonnes of cereals, 1,880 blankets, 2,200 mosquito nets and other essential supplies had left the capital Niamey for the Diffa region, he said.