Twenty-year-old Binta fled Boko Haram violence in her native Nigeria in 2014. She recalls the terror of fleeing with a young baby when she was only 17 years old, “They came and they burned everything. We panicked and ran. We had nothing, no documents, no money, nothing.”
Binta recently became a member of one of the local community-based protection committees in Diffa town. “I want to help other women and children – I have two babies myself. The committee enables me to be their voice, to make sure they are heard.”
“The context in Diffa is very complex. Most refugees and internally displaced people prefer not to live in camps, but rather in ad-hoc sites and amongst the local community,” says Valerie Svobodova, UNHCR Protection Cluster Coordinator. In fact, there are just two formal camps in the region, hosting fewer than 25 000 people, less than 10% of those displaced.
There is a strong sense of community, as many share the same ethnicity, languages and customs, and are only divided by the Komadougou River – the natural border between Niger and Nigeria.
However, this brings about protection challenges: it is easier to ensure protection within camps, where humanitarian partners and security forces are present, as well as protection committees.
Outside of the camps, this is very different. “Population movements are another challenge; without individual registration, it is difficult to effectively follow up on who needs assistance,” Valerie adds. “This situation requires that we work even more with communities, and build on their networks.”
Since 2013 and the onset of the crisis in the Diffa region, EU Humanitarian Aid has funded UNHCR's protection programmes. Despite the challenges, there are 98 community-based protection committees throughout the region.
These committees are trained on basic protection principles such as child protection, sexual- and gender-based violence, and human rights, amongst others. They learn how to identify a person at risk, a victim or a survivor, and how to respond and refer the person to the appropriate service. They are also trained on how to raise awareness within their local communities to prevent protection incidents, where and how to report them and how to take safety and security measures.
So far in 2017, 75% of the 360 protection incidents in the region were reported by members of community-based protection committees. Over 50 survivors of sexual- and gender-based violence have been identified and provided with psychosocial, medical, material or legal support, while 92 children with protection needs have been identified, and provided with assistance and care.
Koulouma, a 55-year-old refugee, is part of a community-based women’s space in the commune of Diffa. Refugees can’t continue to depend on the military and humanitarian actors for protection, she asserts. “We need to be self-reliant. We need to understand how to recognise a risk and to teach others to do the same. We have been through enough; we just want a peaceful life.”
UNHCR’s protection expert believes that one of the main difficulties is to ensure the active participation of women in decision making and discussions around protection.
EU Humanitarian Aid acknowledges the importance of protection in humanitarian emergencies and works closely with UNHCR, the UN agency which has protection as their main mandate. As Ibrahima Traoré, UNHCR's representative in Niger, explains, “Vital funding from EU Humanitarian Aid ensures that the most vulnerable people in Diffa continue to live in a protected environment.”