Issue 70 - Article 10

The challenges of emergency response in Cameroon’s Far North: humanitarian response in a mixed IDP/refugee setting

October 24, 2017
Sara Karimbhoy
Minawao refugee camp

The greater northern region of Cameroon has historically been isolated from the rest of the country. Within the region, common ethnic and tribal groupings and transhumance movement from east to west have given rise to a population identity linked more to neighbouring Chad and Nigeria than to the south of the country, while unequal wealth distribution between southern Cameroon and the north has resulted in chronic under-development. Proximity to the Sahel has fostered an economy dependent on climatic conditions.

The first attacks by Boko Haram in the Far North in 2014 were seen by the Cameroonian government as a Nigerian problem spilling over onto its territory. That Boko Haram had already taken root and could strengthen its hold was considered implausible. Ensuing large-scale attacks, and resultant military operations cordoning off the area bordering Nigeria, led to border closures; trade routes between Cameroon and Chad and Nigeria were shut down, and markets closed. Schools and health facilities were shut down or destroyed: currently, over 100 schools are closed in Fotokol, Makary, Hile Alifa, Waza, Kolofata and Mora, and around 16 health facilities have been destroyed. In addition to large-scale internal displacement, the Far North has also seen the influx of thousands of Nigerian refugees escaping the humanitarian crisis over the border in Borno State.

The humanitarian context

As the refugees flooded into Cameroon they were moved to Minawao, a refugee camp administered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 15km from the Nigerian border. Initially intended to house a much lower number, by April 2017 the population had grown to 63,000. As of June 2017, a further 32,000 refugees were living outside the camp. These extremely vulnerable people, who have come from parts of Nigeria hardest hit by conflict and insecurity, are living in isolated border areas that have also been heavily affected by the conflict. The government response to this influx has been to scale up operations linked to refoulement, despite pressure from the Humanitarian Coordinator and the international community. This year alone, UNHCR estimates that 4,200 refugees have been sent back over the border. NGOs put the figure much higher. Initially the crisis in northern Cameroon was seen as largely revolving around refugees. The majority of NGOs were based in and around Minawao camp, managing programmes in health, water and sanitation and food aid. This has meant that the early efforts of international NGOs, along with donor responses, were directed towards assisting refugee Nigerians, not displaced Cameroonians. Yet over the course of 2016 and 2017, the refugee crisis has been overshadowed by the movement of people indigenous to the Far North. By June 2017, the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) had reached almost 230,000, far exceeding the number of refugees in the region.

The majority of displacement has occurred within a 15–25km wide strip between Cameroon and Nigeria, in locations affected by sustained military operations. One peculiarity of IDPs in Cameroon has been that they have never moved further than 15km from their homes. The majority have also chosen to reside within host communities, with extended family members. These IDPs are not registered by the government, making it difficult to target interventions at the household level. The infrequent tracking of population movements through the Displacement Tracking Matrix, conducted quarterly by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), has further complicated problems around tallying IDPs. The one-month lag time between data collection and publication has meant that entire populations have often moved, or the numbers of displaced have increased by the time each DTM is released.

Towards a humanitarian response

While the humanitarian context has been beset by challenges, the initial hurdle has been Cameroon’s status as a lower-middle-income country – a positive situation, in and of itself. Alongside its relative economic and political stability, over the years Cameroon has worked with development banks and the United Nations to promote economic growth and strengthen human development indicators. This focus on development left it, and the international community, unprepared for the displacement crisis when it began.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) was already operational in the greater northern region, and so understood the context and the subtleties of the operating environment. As an actor already well invested in Cameroon, the agency also had strong relationships at all administrative levels. UNICEF has shifted its focus from development to humanitarian programming, and has scaled up programmes in child protection, education and water, sanitation and health (WASH), addressing needs at household and community levels. The focus has been on communes within affected departments that have a higher ratio of IDPs/refugees to host communities. This has ensured that programmes target the most vulnerable communities, and are more likely to address the specific needs of IDPs and out-of-camp refugees. Starting in Mayo Tsanaga and Mayo Sava, and then Logone and Chari, UNICEF has expanded its community-level child protection and education programmes to include displaced children by setting up Temporary Learning Spaces, which also double as Child Friendly Spaces. These structures, built in communities hosting IDPs, provide space for children to participate in games to improve their mental health and receive basic education. In a region where student to classroom ratios are extremely high, this has had the double effect of creating extra room in schools that are already experiencing space constraints.

UNICEF has also trained community members to identify vulnerable children within displaced communities. One of the issues of greatest concern is child marriage (a pervasive problem throughout Cameroon). Recognising that child marriage is a common issue in displaced families, UNICEF has modified a national-level development programme to address this vital humanitarian need. Another area of concern is Cameroon’s lack of a clear database on its water capacity. UNICEF, in partnership with the Ministry of Water, has identified all existing water sources in the Far North region, as well as sites that might be conducive to or considered a priority for water supply projects. This has ensured that, when sites are being identified for new water infrastructure projects, priority is given to communities that have received displaced people.

Local and international responses

Until mid-2016, there were 29 non-governmental actors in the Far North, including 14 international NGOs, primarily from surrounding countries. One positive gain has been that the humanitarian community has begun partnering with and depending on local NGOs in guiding and managing the response. Prior to the onset of the crisis, local NGOs were either community-based organisations or local associations, whose mandates centred on advocacy towards specific issues, such as child marriage and social welfare. Small, and with a focus on social development and community mobilisation, they needed to be reoriented towards service delivery and programme implementation. What they lacked in know-how, however, they made up for in local knowledge – of the communities, the dynamics and the underlying issues.

As a non-implementing actor, UNICEF has supported local NGOs technically and financially. UNICEF’s lead child protection partner, ALDEPA, has received sustained technical support for the past three years. Previously a small social welfare association, ALDEPA staff have been trained in child protection practices and norms, as well as logistics and financial management, enabling it to grow in size and capacity. Through hands-on monitoring and follow-up of ALDEPA’s activities, UNICEF has ensured that it incorporates its new skills into programmes and work processes. As a result, ALDEPA is now well-positioned to implement protection programmes more broadly, and is considered a partner of choice for many other humanitarian actors and donors. As people are displaced to new areas, UNICEF is identifying other local associations and NGOs that it can support and train on child protection issues. This diversification has ensured that partners do not become overstretched, and that the quality of programmes is not undermined.

Like other UN agencies, UNICEF is also working with the government at national and regional levels, both to respond to the immediate humanitarian crisis and to address the underlying causes of under-development in the region. One challenge has been shifting the government’s focus towards a timely emergency response given the lack of capacity at the regional level. Line ministries, including health, education and social welfare, do not have the capacity at the regional level to adapt their services quickly to the emergency. This has meant that UN agencies and partners have had to expand their own emergency systems, while alternating between building the capacity of the regional government in crisis response and at the same time ensuring that the immediate needs of conflict-affected people are met.

Another hindrance has been the government’s primary focus on security and maintaining the country’s territorial integrity. This has often resulted in limited access for humanitarian actors to the most vulnerable areas of Logone and Chari and other key departments, and increased reliance on government authorities as implementing partners.

As insecurity has deepened in border areas, it has become more difficult to ensure that health centres and schools remain staffed and adequately supplied. To ensure that health services and schools remain unaffected, UNICEF has provided critical support by safeguarding pipelines from ports of entry in Cameroon to the commune. Like many other UN agencies, UNICEF has resolved staffing issues in conflict-affected areas by training local volunteer teachers and community health workers, supporting community infrastructure and strengthening the capacity of the local nurses and other staff who have remained.

At the time of writing, several international NGOs were developing a rapid response mechanism (RRM) that is expected to speed up the humanitarian response in Logone, Chari and other departments. Beginning in November 2017, the RRM will implement an early warning system and respond to population displacement. It is hoped that this mechanism will ensure that the immediate needs of IDPs and out-of-camp refugees are met. Concentrating on the delivery of a few key items, hygiene kits and non-food items, it is hoped that this this mechanism will have the added benefit of buying time until the humanitarian response begins.


The build-up of the response to the crisis may seem slow, given that the conflict began in earnest in 2014. The mixed nature of displacement, the lack of partners on the ground and limited government capacity have all constrained the humanitarian response. While not discussed here in detail, insecurity was and remains a key factor in reducing humanitarian space. UNICEF and other actors have shifted their immediate focus from development to humanitarian response, albeit while also trying to maintain a bridge between these two aspects of its programming by continuing to support the government and building the capacity of local partners. With the increase in the number of international NGOs operating in the Far North, humanitarian capacity is growing. This should enable us to meet the immediate, short-term and long-term needs of crisis-affected populations, be they host communities, IDPs or out-of-camp refugees.

Sara Karimbhoy, is Emergency Coordinator, UNICEF Cameroon. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not be attributed to UNICEF in any way.


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