The conflict between Boko Haram and Nigerian government forces has displaced 2.6 million people. (AFP)

Tens of thousands of children may starve to death in Boko Haram-affected areas

Laura Lopez Gonzalez
The conflict has left health services and agriculture in shambles. Unicef says it has just 13% of the money it needs to stave off deaths.

About 500 000 children in West Africa are likely to suffer from severe malnutrition this year as Nigeria’s Boko Haram conflict continues to displace thousands and disrupt food production.

The latest figures from the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) show a more than threefold increase in the number of children likely to experience severe malnutrition as compared to predictions issued by the agency at the start of the year, according to a  report released on Thursday.

Unicef estimates that 3.8-million people affected by the conflict in Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria do not have enough to eat. In Boko Haram’s birthplace, Nigeria’s northeast Borno state, Unicef says about one in five of 244 000 children suffering from severe malnutrition will die without treatment.

Fighting between the armed group and government forces has disrupted health services. More than half of the state’s health clinics and hospitals have either been damaged or destroyed and an equal percentage of water and sanitation facilities are also in need of repair.

The Nigerian government declared a nutritional emergency in the state in June.

Millions find shelter in camps, among neighbours
The United Nations says the conflict has displaced 2.6-million people, with Nigerian refugees, including 15-year-old Khadija, spilling into neighbouring countries.

“I wanted to take my school books, but I couldn’t even do that,” she says in a Unicef report.

“All we left with were the clothes on our backs. We walked for days barefoot. When I arrived in Baga [a nearby village], my feet were badly injured from walking in the bush with all those thorns. I had to go to the clinic so they could pull them out with tweezers. It took hours.”

But the war soon found Khadija in Baga as Boko Haram attacked the town.

“We ran to the lake and jumped into a boat to flee to Chad. People in the boat spoke of lifeless bodies lying on the ground and houses burned. I had to cover my ears,” she says.

Khadija now lives in a Chadian refugee camp.

Boko Haram forcibly conscripts girls and boys — almost one in every five suicide bombers used by the group is a child, according to the report.

The UN agency warns that, more than three years into the conflict, the humanitarian response to the growing nutritional crisis remains underfunded. Unicef has calculated that it will take $308-million to provide assistance to displaced families, including food, water and schooling. But the agency has received only 13% of the funds it needs.

Nigeria’s refugee crisis will be among those to be addressed at a UN meeting on September 19. Unicef is urging governments to protect refugee and migrant children from violence, exploitation and detention based on immigration status. The children’s agency will also be advocating for families to be kept together while on the move or during resettlement, and for world leaders to address the crises behind forced migration. 

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