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Updated: 07/04/2014 01:19:04AM

Nigerian refugees fleeing Islamist raids now total 3.3 million

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Daniel Magnowski and Ibrahim Abdul’Aziz

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ABUJA, Nigeria (Bloomberg) — The last thing Izebula Emmanuel remembered on the day his village in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno was attacked by suspected Islamist militants was a gunman telling him that his life was coming to an end.

“Before I could say anything, he just opened fire on me,” hitting his skull, recalled Emmanuel, who was taken to a hospital in Yola, capital of the neighboring state of Adamawa. “I don’t know how I got here.” Two of his brothers were gunned down in the February attack, he said.

Today Emmanuel, 40, passes his time in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Yola, one of a rising wave of people fleeing raids by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, counter attacks by the Nigerian army and ethnic conflict. On a good day, he can make 1,000 naira ($6) repairing tires.

Violence has forced about 3.3 million people to flee their homes in Africa’s biggest oil producer, according to the National Commission for Refugees. Nigeria has the world’s third- highest number of people displaced by conflict after Syria and Colombia, according to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. About 470,000 ran away from their towns and villages in 2013, it said in a report.

Boko Haram has killed thousands of Nigerians, mainly poor villagers in the majority-Muslim north, since it took up arms against the government in Abuja, the capital, five years ago. In April, it kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls from the village of Chibok in Borno state. On June 30, the Nigerian military said it arrested a suspected Boko Haram cell leader who was involved in the abduction.

The movement germinated in the mainly Islamic northeast, an area of open borders where criminal gangs and arms smuggling are rampant, and where employment and literacy are far lower than the Nigerian average.

About 67 percent of women and 51 percent of men in the north can’t read or write, compared with a national average of 50 percent of females and 35 percent of males by the end of 2012, according to the Nigerian statistics agency. About 69 percent of Nigerians in the northeast were living in absolute poverty in 2010, compared with a national average of 61 percent, according to the agency.

The displaced “are essentially now being left to fend for themselves,” Joe Read, West Africa regional analyst at the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, said in an e-mailed response to questions.

It’s “particularly concerning for children — many of whom have been separated from their parents during the violence, and are now exposed to particular risks in this volatile environment including sexual exploitation, abduction or forced recruitment,” she said.

Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency runs some camps for displaced Nigerians. On June 21, it said it had registered more than 6,000 people who fled to Borno’s capital, Maiduguri, from elsewhere in the state.

NEMA spokesman Ezekiel Manzo didn’t respond to requests by phone and e-mail for comment.

The situation for those affected by the violence is particularly dire in states such as Borno and Yobe, two of three states where President Goodluck Jonathan’s government declared emergency rule a year ago.

“The humanitarian needs are huge and there are only few humanitarian actors on the ground,” Jean Gough, who heads the United Nations Children’s Fund Nigeria office, said in an e- mailed statement. “Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the violence, often after losing their homes and their livelihoods. Access to food, health services and water is a major issue.”

The violence, coupled with an encroaching Sahara Desert that is fueling conflict between herders and farmers, is pushing people south toward cities such as Abuja and the commercial hub of Lagos and increasing competition for jobs and housing.

“The current violence has intensified this movement, with displaced people joining economic migrants to head to the slums and other areas around the larger cities, notably Abuja and other state capitals,” Read said.

Others flee to neighboring countries such as Cameroon, Chad and Niger, which now has 50,000 refugees and may host double that figure by the end of the year, according to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

“It puts on a lot of pressure as these are some of the poorest countries in the world,” UNHCR spokeswoman Helene Caux said by phone from Dakar, Senegal’s capital. “The refugees are also in very remote areas, semi-arid areas, which makes it hard for humanitarian aid workers to reach.”

As tough as life is in the camps, those who’ve fled their homes did so “because they have reached the limit of what they can take,” Caux said.

Joshua Balami, 62, a Christian preacher who led a church in Hawul district in Borno, says he wants to go back as soon as security in the area improves. He now lives in Abuja, about 500 miles southwest of his home.

“I had to leave my home town where I had lived all my life due to incessant attacks by Boko Haram,” the father of five said by phone. “I am right now raising a church in Abuja where I encourage my members not to give up and keep praying for the return of peace to our dear state.”

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