In 2019, three so-called “opportunity villages” were opened in the Maradi region of southern Niger: a landlocked west African country and one of the poorest states on Earth in terms of wealth per capita. The villages were an initiative arranged between the United Nations, the government and local leaders; an attempt to create a new way for a growing influx of refugees to live. They were based beside existing villages, and saw thousands of Nigerian refugees move in, often bringing little with them but the clothes on their backs. The new residents had escaped violence in their neighbouring country, and had no intentions of returning any time soon. They were given homes – initially tents or other temporary shelters, though some have now graduated to concrete structures.
“To be frank, the objective is to catalyse funds and catalyse actors around this, let’s say, a positive concept in terms of settlement of refugees,” says a UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesman, who requests not to be named. “By opportunities we mean there is an acceptance [from] the local population to host refugees in these villages but there is space also ... for shelter, for services, for additional populations of refugees and there is also some space for agriculture.”
The idea is to make sure there is “inclusion, integration”. The UN and other aid agencies would also “reinforce services to ensure the absorption of refugees”, at the same time improving services for the local population. In the coming years, he says, they hope to expand the idea to other locations.
In the two opportunity villages visited by The Irish Times the atmosphere is calm. Children play, drawing on concrete walls with charcoal or pulling toys fashioned out of shoes, strings and jerrycans. Women grind millet. Shelters – made of sticks, metal poles, thick sheeting or concrete – have numbers and letters painted on them: addresses.
The people who were already living in this part of Niger are mostly Hausa, meaning they share a language and customs, as well as a religion, with the new arrivals. Those arrivals are mostly northwest Nigerians who have fled a violent banditry problem that has displaced more than a million people. More than 200,000 Nigerians have taken refuge in Niger.
[ Modernity is slow to come to Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world ]
Niger – which has a population of about 25 million – hosts nearly 300,000 refugees and asylum seekers, while there are also more than 376,000 internally displaced people. Though poverty is nothing new, insecurity was relatively unknown before the last decade, authorities say. Now the surrounding Sahel region is battling a series of crises, including Islamic militant groups waging insurgencies; repeated coups in Burkina Faso and Mali; and the growing impact of climate change, with the UN saying temperatures are rising at 1½ times the rate of other parts of the world.
Still, during an interview in his office in capital Niamey, Laouan Magagi, Niger’s minister of humanitarian affairs, says the country will not refuse entry to refugees. “Niger is a welcoming country,” he says. “It’s an open country to the world. We stand for humanity. Here, we have a proverb that ‘your visitor is your God’ ... You have to be sure you treat them well; the aspect with which you welcome someone is more important than what you provide ... Even if it’s the second-poorest country in the world, it’s welcoming.”
The UNHCR spokesman says Niger is becoming a “model” in terms of “alternatives to camps”. It hosts refugees in six of its eight regions, and the spokesman says other approaches to support them are being tested too, including urban planning for refugees who end up in cities. He praises Niger’s government, saying it has remained “pragmatic ... looking for innovation, inclusion”.
The “opportunity villages” have prompted headlines such as “Nigerian refugees in Niger thrive in ‘opportunity villages”, which ran on the Voice of America website. But four years after they were first set up, refugees living there say life is still a daily struggle, with one particular problem being cuts to monthly cash payments, a lack of job opportunities and delays in cash distribution.
The UN’s World Food Programme now gives monthly cash. Last year the amount dropped from €8.3) per month to €5.33, even as the price of goods rose. “With that money we buy everything. Food, soap for clothes, everything in our life. We have problems filling this gap”
One opportunity village, Chadakori, is home to nearly 8,000 refugees, who live beside a community of about 8,000 Nigeriens. It is divided into sections, each with a chief. Some of them sit on a UNHCR-branded piece of sheeting to air their complaints.
Ibrahim Damboa, a chief who was among the first arrivals, says relationships between the local Nigeriens and the refugees are good. “When there’s a naming ceremony we invite each other. When there is a death they come to help us in the burial. When we have particular problems we tell them and they help us,” he says. “We live peacefully.”
The main problem is getting enough food, he says. The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) used to distribute beans, rice, oil and millet, but now they give monthly cash instead. Last year the amount dropped from 5,500 CFA (€8.38) per month to 3,500 CFA (€5.33), even as the price of goods rose. “With that money we buy everything. Food, soap for clothes, everything in our life,” says Damboa. “We have problems filling this gap.”
WFP spokesman Djaounsede Madjiangar says the cuts are due to funding constraints, and were “one of the most difficult decisions in 2022″. He also says he is aware of some delays “as a result of a combination of lack of funding, access constraints and insecurity”, though “WFP strives to meet the needs of the vulnerable households in time”.
Ibrahim Nomau, the 52-year-old leader of another section, complains that he, and hundreds of others, have gone six months without receiving the monthly cash transfer. “We are here for more than three years with our family. We can’t go back home because they will kill us,” he says. “Are we going to pack our load and go back to our town? If the hunger is going to kill us we have to. As of now there is no way to work, there is no way to get money. Are you going to make us beg?”
Madjiangar from WFP says the reasons behind this would need to be checked with government authorities. A representative from the local community says some of the problem is that refugees are not always present in the “opportunity village” because they go out looking for work, meaning they missed an unexpected visit by government representatives who come to verify their identities.
Habsatou Ousman, a mother of five, has been in Chadakori for three years. She sits on a woven mat as she explains she is originally from Garki village in Nigeria’s Sokoto state. There, more than 150 people died during an attack by armed gunmen, she says. “They came on motorcycles and started shooting and those who tried to run were shot, those who remained in houses survived. Me and other people inside houses went out after some time when things got calm. We sneaked out and went in the bush after dark.”
[ Unemployment driving young Africans into extremist militant groups, says the UN ]
After they crossed the border into Niger, she says, Nigerien authorities gave them bracelets with numbers on them and organised their transfer to the camp.
“We were happy. We knew that definitely we have escaped the bandits. We started thinking about a new life. We were given shelters, and the authorities made a very important speech telling us to stay peacefully with the hosting village and between ourselves, not to quarrel and to live peacefully.”
She says they were given food, mats and cooking utensils: “Everything we needed we got at the beginning.” But like others, she speaks about a more recent delay in cash distributions from WFP, “which everyone suffers from”.
“In the first year everything was okay, but after one year more people were coming and the food and money we were given was not enough and there was a delay, which made things more difficult.”
The oldest people in the camp are in their 80s, Ousman said. The elderly, along with disabled people, and widows with children, like her, have been moved to concrete homes for more security, which are more protected during rainy season.
Using the money from WFP as capital, she does petty trading, selling peanut cakes known as kouli kouli. Helpfully, her children are given meals in school, she said.
Refugees regularly remind each other about the importance of living in peace with their hosts. “Because we’ve fled an insecure area, so we should not allow insecurity again here,” says Ousman.
“At the beginning we noticed some discrimination, some people called us refugees, but now things have changed. They’re used to us now. We were stigmatised but now it’s not there.”
Various NGOs work in the opportunity villages, including Save the Children, which has set up “child-friendly spaces” where children can play while their parents go in search of work.
[ As Blinken visits Niger, daily struggles are laid bare in city market ]
There are healthcare centres, though people with complex medical needs must be referred to hospitals. Some appeared to be in need of medical help. One woman pulled up her T-shirt to show a protruding tumour on her stomach. There are children with swollen bellies: a symptom of a type of severe malnutrition called kwashiorkor. A man walks on crutches, crippled by an injury from a gunshot wound he says he sustained while escaping – he says he will go to hospital for treatment soon.
A UNHCR spokesman said the quality of healthcare for refugees in the opportunity villages is supposed to follow the national standard, which should be free for pregnant women and children under five. He says the agency is involved in a “progressive exit strategy”, but will continue to support the centres with specific needs. “You know that Niger is also facing lots of difficulties in terms of public services, so the level we have created in the opportunity villages is much higher.”
The thieves kept on coming and stealing us, taking our cattle so we came and joined relatives or sometimes unknowns here. The most important thing here is security; we’re safe, we sleep well, we’re very happy— Anas Habibou, who acts as camp leader at Dan Daji Makaou
Dan Daji Makaou, another “opportunity village”, is 60km from the city of Maradi and is home to around 5,450 people.
“The conflict has not stopped,” says Anas Habibou, who acts as the camp’s leader and was the son of a village chief back in Sokoto state, Nigeria. He says no one is ready to return.
Habibou fled his home in 2019, reaching Niger with his two wives and 19 children. In the camp he has married another woman, a fellow refugee.
“The thieves kept on coming and stealing us, taking our cattle so we came and joined relatives or sometimes unknowns here,” he says. “The most important thing here is security; we’re safe, we sleep well, we’re very happy.”
Before they came to Dan Daji Makaou, many refugees slept inside a primary school closer to the border, which was empty for the holidays. “When we were looking for a place to be hosted many villages refused, but the head of the village here accepted and they even contributed things towards the refugees.”
He says young people from the opportunity villages go around the host community looking for small jobs such as brick-making so they can support their families, but finding work is hard. Some rent land to farm. Everyone else is reliant on WFP for cash assistance, “but sometimes when WFP doesn’t come on time we have to go to the villages and beg.” Money can be delayed by a few months, which results in refugees taking out loans and entering into debt, he said.
The communities are forging relationships. Refugees have married people from the host communities. But there are few opportunities for other advancement. A school has been built, and there are six classes running for children, but as they get older “the major challenge is unemployment. They don’t have anything to do; they are only sitting down.”
Aicha Mahaman, a woman in her 50s, says she has not been registered nearly a year after she arrived, so doesn’t receive any WFP cash assistance.
Regarding newer arrivals such as this, who are not receiving benefits, the UNHCR spokesman says: “I don’t think it’s really a problem of registration, it’s more a problem of capacity.”
In the camp we need more huts … [There are] too many people in one hut. We don’t have enough mats, materials for cooking, cooking utensils, buckets, some money— Aicha Mahaman
To survive, Mahaman searches through sand for the peanuts farmers missed when harvesting. She sells what she can find, but it’s not enough. One of her grandchildren had a protruding stomach indicative of serious malnutrition.
They still find some happiness. Mahaman’s 22-year-old son is about to get married to another Nigerian refugee in the camp, with the wedding taking place this month. “We [will] fully celebrate. Everyone will be happy. They will dance, they’ll make food,” she says.
An aid agency brought her cooking gas and a cooker. “In the camp we need more huts ... [There are] too many people in one hut. We don’t have enough mats, materials for cooking, cooking utensils, buckets, some money,” says Mahaman.
Another woman in the camp says her daughter complains about hunger throughout the day. She begs for food from neighbours, or sends her daughter into the surrounding bush to gather firewood that they can sell. During harvest time, mother and daughter worked together in the fields, “but now the work is over, we are jobless,” she said.
In the longer term, WFP spokesman Madjiangar says, his agency and UNHCR are working together to identify livelihood opportunities for both refugees and host communities.
“West Africa is facing another year of record hunger with thousands experiencing catastrophic levels of food insecurity,” Madjiangar said. “Over 35 million people in the region [were] unable to meet their basic food and nutrition needs between October and December 2022.” He says the number of people lacking regular access to safe and nutritious food is expected to increase to an “all-time high” of 48 million by the middle of 2023.
When asked whether the moniker “opportunity villages” is misleading because of the lack of opportunity for many refugees, the UNHCR spokesman says that, compared to the places people have fled in Nigeria, many will say “there’s no comparison” and that the services they have now are much better. “The main issue, like in any refugee situation ... is economic opportunities. And what we are missing currently is structural investment in terms of irrigation, market, gardening etc.”
He says there are plans to provide as many as 2,000 refugees with grants to start businesses, but verification is ongoing. And he says, regarding access to education, water and health, “the level is quite more better than what you have in Nigeria”.
Laouan Magagi, Niger’s minister of humanitarian affairs – whose grandfather came from Nigeria – says he can’t envisage the security situation in northern Nigeria improving, despite the election of a new president recently. He says Nigerian refugees will not be encouraged to return home if the situation is not safe.
“Naturally they’re welcomed in our community,” echoes Ibrahim Salifou, a local chief, or chef de canton, in Niger’s Maradi region, where the opportunity villages are. “It’s spontaneously that we welcome the refugees,” he says. “According to me, their stay in our area has no limits ... We cannot send them back. The only condition for them to go back is security.”